A good bowl of ramen seems unimprovable if not for the discreet, red-topped bottle often sitting beside it. Shake the jar and out falls an array of seasonings that brightens and heats simultaneously. This is shichimi togarashi, and it's making its way from the ramen counter to the spice rack of fine-dining kitchens.
Shichimi togarashi is decidedly Japanese, but its roots are in Chinese herbal medicine. Each of its seven ingredients ("shichi" means "seven" and "mi" means "taste"; "togarashi" is Japanese dried red chilli) brings a distinct flavour profile and herbal benefit to the colourful blend.
A traditional recipe mixes togarashi with sansho (lemony Sichuan peppercorns that make your tongue tingle), dried orange or tangerine peels, dried seawood (nori), sesame seeds, hemp seeds, and garlic. Some blends may swap in dried ginger, yuzu peel, or poppy seeds.
The blend is commonly referred to simply as togarashi. Still, to avoid confusion with ichimi togarashi ("ichi" meaning "one," so "one-taste chilli"), which is merely ground red chilli, you should call it shichimi.
"The herbal medicine idea was taken by the Japanese – not as largely practiced as in China – but it's the idea of something being good for your health," says Hiroko Shimbo, an authority on Japanese cuisine and author of several books.
While traditionalists may frown upon seeing the blend topping anything beyond udon and miso soup, chefs are notorious for plucking curious finds from their travels and incorporating them into dishes.
Shichimi togarashi blends are available from Asian grocers.