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Ground dried Sansho is most commonly used in Japanese cooking as a condiment sprinkled on grilled eel. Fresh green sansho leaves give colour and fragrance to many other dishes. I have a special dish which is popular with guests and staff, one which will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, is relatively easy to make and really easy to serve.
The pure, cold mountain streams in this area produce delicious char. They are small, usually six to eight inches long, and popularly served slightly salted and grilled over charcoal or by being stuck on a stick which is then stuck into the ground, leaning towards a small wood fire. These river char, relatives of the trout, are also farmed in pools fed by these mountain streams. Wild char are best, but the farmed char are not bad either.
In some streams lower down rainbow trout, which are less sensitive to water temperature changes than the native char, have been introduced and are also farmed locally.
The Torii River, which runs right past my study window, has char, and is a tributary of the Chikuma River which then flows into the Shinano River that empties into the Japan Sea at Niigata. Until they put so many damns on this river system salmon used to spawn in the Torii, but nowadays we get wild salmon from a small fishery at the mouth of the Shinano and other Japan Sea rivers, as well as from the northern island of Hokkaido. Char, trout and salmon are common Japanese fares.
We get a lot of guests, often twenty or thirty at a sitting, and grilling char and so forth for so many is a chore. I have a delicious sansho-flavored dish that lets me serve our local fish with ease.
Preserving green sansho:
Later in the summer, when the sansho berries are still fresh and green and the inner seeds have not yet gone dark brown and hard we pick the berries and then go through the long task of removing the tiny stalks. We then steam the berries and freeze them. Once the tiny stalks are removed the berries themselves will darken in a day or so and their flavor will diminish. Once steamed, frozen and bottled the sansho berries can be easily used.
Char or salmon:
When using these small char I gut and clean them, taking care to also remove the gills and the line of black along the backbone. I then put them in an iron pot, toss in a little salt and laurel leaves and half steam, half boil with white wine.
I have a French iron pot with an iron lid that is indented so that you can put water in the top of the lid. The water helps to cool the lid just enough to let moisture catch on little pimples in the bottom of the lid, which drips back down.
When the fish are cooked I remove heads, backbones and fins, then very carefully, with fine chopsticks, take out all the little bones. With char this takes some time. I make sure to use the skin, which contains collagen, and for you fussy Brits who don’t like fish skin (which is the most nutritious part of the fish) I can assure you that once mixed, nobody will notice that the skin is in the dish, and as far as I’m concerned, it gives extra flavour.
Meanwhile I return the bones and heads to the pot, add more wine together with herbs of choice; in my case fennel, rosemary, oregano and sometimes a little sage and thyme, all taken from the rockery herb garden at our woodland trust centre. I boil this mixture and then carefully filter out the broth.
I mix the char flesh with some balsamic vinegar, a dash of soya sauce, mayonnaise, black pepper to taste, some of the fish broth, and a generous handful of frozen green Sansho berries. I mix by hand then finish with an electric mixer, adjusting the consistency with the fish broth.
Here in Japan we can buy a sort of vegetable gelatin called ‘kanten’ which turns to jelly easily and has almost no flavour. Otherwise you can use powdered gelatin. Mix this in (I first dissolved the stuff in warmed fish broth, but you could use hot water) then mix it in. Actually, there is not much need for a jellifying substance if you have made the fish broth from lots of small char bones and some skin).
Once mixed to the consistency that you have to spoon the stuff out, adjusting the flavour as you go, the paste is transferred into Tupperware or other similar airtight containers and put into the fridge to set.
The pate’ is served on toast or crackers, or in my case, with freshly cooked bannock (I use yeast for bannock rather than baking powder).
If you keep it in a fridge, with a lid on, the pate’ will last for a couple of weeks.
This dish is easier to make with fresh salmon, as the bones are easier to remove, but you will need a little more gelatin to make it set.
My Japanese friends like this pate’ with chilled sake’ as the sansho seems to enhance the taste of the sake’ as well. It also goes really well with Kokoro Gin!
Uncle Nic