It is often said that the Japanese don’t do spicy when it comes to their indigenous cuisine. For all the different flavours, tastes and textures available for all to sample across the spectrum of Japanese food, there a precious few dishes, according to the experts, that will leave that burning sensation on your tongue and that satisfying bubbling in your stomach that only the likes of Szechuan Noodles from China or a Chicken Vindaloo from Southern India can accomplish.
However, having had several years to sample Japanese food up close, I can verify that this is not the case. For those who like a little extra kick in their culinary creations, Japan has plenty to offer the spicy food connoisseur. So get your appetites ready and put a toilet roll in the freezer, (because you’ll need it later!) as we embark on a tour of Japan’s top 10 spiciest foods.
10) Ebi Chili
A nice, and not so spicy appetizer to get our list off to a tasty start. Ebi Chili, is pretty self-explanatory. In more than a passing nod to Chinese style sweet and sour chicken, Ebi Chili, is lightly battered fried shrimp, served with a sweet chili sauce. The sauce is almost identical to that which one would find alongside the “namaharumaki” (Raw Spring Rolls) so popular in Vietnamese restaurants in Japan, and indeed across Asia. If you fancy making it yourself at home, all you’ll need is a deep fryer. You can by the shrimp and an Ebi Chili dinner kit (batter mix and chili sauce) for a total of around five or six hundred yen in pretty much any Japanese supermarket.
Photo: Thai Pham on Flickr
9) Taco Rice
Oh, but wait a minute, Tacos are from Mexico, aren’t they? Indeed tacos are a stable of Mexican indigenous cuisine, and a thoroughly delicious one at that. However, not so in the case of taco rice. Taco rise finds its origins in 1950’s and 60s Okinawa. Since the US occupation of Okinawa post-World War Two and continuing into today, there has always been a significant US military presence on the islands. With this military might comes thousands of hungry young bellies, eager for a taste of home. As such, taco rice developed as a fusion of the Mexican salsa and taco cases favoured by the latino contingent of the US forces and fused with the easily accessible local foodstuffs, that most Japanese of Japanese commodities: rice.
Photo: Hajime NAKANO on Flickr
The result, a delicious, sweet and spicy fusion dish that really gives the best of both worlds. How spicy it is really depends on how many jalapenos you are brave enough to put into your salsa!
8) Karashi Mentaiko
Photo: masahiro takayama on Flickr
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been a fan of mentaiko. Like most fish roe based dishes, I find it slimy, far too salty and with a very overpowering taste. With this in mind, I have to say I was most pleasantly surprised when I tried Karashi Mentaiko. In an amazingly simple premise, Karashi Mentaiko is the very same mentaiko we all know so well, but with a garnish made from fine Japanese chili peppers known as shiso. These peppers give the mentaiko a uniquely spicy, peppery pungency that in my opinion greatly enhances the flavour and texture, whilst going someway to negate the overly salty and slimy aftertaste of pure mentaiko. Even if, like me, you’re not a fan of the conventional mentaiko, I still recommend you give it a try.
7) Mabu Tofu
Photo: 呉 松本 on Flickr
OK, so I admit I’m probably cheating a little bit here, with what is ostensibly a Chinese dish. However, it is undeniably delicious, packing a punch in the spice department and widely available across Japan. One of my first forays into eating tofu was when I tried mabu tofu for the first time in Tokyo back in 2006. Smooth, easy to prepare and very flavourful, this is a truly delicious dish.
Photo: Sotaro OMURA on Flickr
What happens when you combine my favourite Japanese fruit with some of my favourite peppers and spices? The answer: Yuzukoshou. Not really a food in its own right, as much as it is a garnish for grilled meats and vegetables, yuzu koshou is as delicious as it is easy to make. Simply, it is ground and pulverized yuzu fruit (a Japanese citrus fruit somewhere between a lemon and an orange) blended with chili, black pepper and few other rudimentary herbs and spices to make a refreshing, tart paste that will compliment most kinds of yakitori and other grilled foods. Make sure you request a side of this next time you hit up your local izakaya!
5) Tan Tan Ramen
Photo: Katatonic on Flickr
An old favourite of salarymen across Japan. This excellent dish is another fine example of taking a Japanese staple, in this case the trusty bowl of ramen noodles and giving it a hot and spicy twist. Infused with beef, chili oil, fresh chili peppers and lots of black pepper this one is a delicious dish that’s certainly not for the faint hearted, guaranteed to rouse even the most surly salaryman from his slovenly slumber.
4) Geki Kara Miso Ramen
Similar in some respects to the aforementioned Tan Tan Ramen, Geki Kara Miso Ramen adds more vegetables alongside the familiar Japanese flavouring of miso paste. Spicy miso: undoubtedly one of modern Japan’s best food innovations!
Photo: eeems on Flickr
No izakaya worth its salt (or pepper for that matter) would open its doors without first ensuring each table was well-stocked with a ready supply of this delicious accompaniment. Whilst black pepper has always been a popular accompaniment to many foods in Europe and the US, shichimi is a relatively recent addition to the Japanese dinner table. As the name suggests (shi is seven in Japanese) Shichimi draws its name from the seven different types of ground chill, black pepper and other spices drawn together to make this fiery red powder. Guaranteed to give any dish that extra kick, shichimi is the perfect tonic to those dishes that just seem too bland.
2) Japanese curry
Photo: Norio Nomura on Flickr
Although it is undoubtedly inspired by the original curries that originated in the UK and India at the height of the now defunct British Empire, Japanese curry has its own distinct taste and characteristics. In the pursuit of something hot enough to tame the tastebuds, Japanese curry restaurant chains, such as Coco Ichiban have been pursuing increasingly spicy curry recipes. In all honesty though, whilst these curries are tasty and all, once you go beyond around a level 8 or 9 (Coco Ichi goes up to 12 as of the last time I visited) all you’re getting is more pepper and more chili powder, with little of any substance being added to the flavour of the dish. For an optimum taste experience, I usually stick to a medium or hot curry.
Photo: Steven Dipolo on Flickr
The granddaddy of them all as far as spicy Japanese cuisine goes. This simple Japanese take on horse radish is so spicy it can actually induce tears in those who eat too much. However, It’s an undeniably delicious addition, be it to sushi, chicken or even in the form of the ubiquitous Wasabi Pringles. Wasabi is a fantastic flavour, if you’ve got the tolerance for it.
As you can see there are no shortage of good spicy dishes out there in Japan, even if they aren’t all of Japanese origin. Ok, I’m off to 7/11 now for some wasabi pringles. Enjoy!