Tsurai (辛い) or karai (辛い) – “Spicy” in the Japanese tongue

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  April 13, 2022

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Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

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There’s a significant portion of Japanese cuisine that has spiciness as its central theme. And it’s even become a cult in Japan and elsewhere!

The fact of the matter is that traditional Japanese foods aren’t usually spicy. And even their many reinterpretations of Western foods are quite tame.

But knowing the Japanese, they can turn any ordinary dish into something explosive to your taste. In fact, it’ll leave you baffled and still be talking about it, even weeks after you’ve had a bite!

chilli

Wasabi, for example, is just one ingredient that’s turned dozens of Japanese spicy foods extraordinary and renowned around the world.

Today we’ll explore “tsurai” or “karai” Japanese foods that deal heavily with the spiciness of the dish.

Etymology

The Japanese language equivalent of the word “spicy” would be “karai”, “karakuchi”, or simply just “supaishii.”

Although it has a similar meaning to the other words mentioned above, the term “tsurai” is used more to indicate an emotional state rather than a physical feeling or taste. But it can still be used to imply you’re experiencing the taste of something spicy!

In Japan, the terms “hot” and “spicy” can refer to both a pungent mustard flavor or a flaming hot chili pepper flavor.

All over the world, people love and enjoy Japanese food for 2 reasons: 1) its wide variety of dishes and 2) its availability in many different delicious flavors.

While it’s a common misconception that there’s plenty of hot and spicy food in Japan, the truth is that it’s actually not so widely represented compared to other dishes, which is quite the opposite in other countries like Thailand. In fact, a significant portion of Japanese people even self-identify as unable to tolerate even mildly spicy flavors!

But even with these known facts, Japan does have a number of spicy food recipes and they’re commonly found in the southern region, which has historically been strongly influenced by the Koreans and the Chinese.

How spicy is typical Japanese food?

Before we go into the details on the spiciness of Japanese food, let us first learn about the Scoville scale.

The Scoville scale is a means to measure the pungency (spiciness or “heat”) of chili peppers and other spicy foods with the unit of measure being Scoville heat units (SHU).

The SHU is based on how much capsaicinoids (capsaicin) concentration is present or dominant in chili peppers.

Below are the chemicals in chili peppers and the SHU ratings for them:

Chemical SHU Rating
Resiniferatoxin 16,000,000,000
Tinyatoxin 5,300,000,000
Capsaicin, dihydrocapsaicin 15,000,000 to 16,000,000
Nonivamide 9,200,000
Nordihydrocapsaicin 9,100,000
Homocapsaicin, homodihydrocapsaicin 8,600,000
Shogaol 160,000
Piperine 100,000 – 200,000
Gingerol 60,000
Campsite 16,000

Hot and spicy Japanese condiments

Wasabi

Wasabi comes from the mustard family (it’s a type of root similar to horseradish) that when eaten, can stimulate the sinuses and nasal passages.

Although the spicy effects of eating wasabi can be quite intense, they last for only a very short while.

Wasabi is best known as a sushi side dish/condiment/dipping sauce and is a specialty plant exclusively cultivated and used in Japan. Wasabi can also be used in the dipping sauce for noodles in small amounts.

Shichimi togarashi

This Japanese spicy condiment is actually a combination of spices, including ginger, seaweed, sesame seeds, sansho pepper, and red pepper. Shichimi togarashi is excellent for people who have a low tolerance level for spicy food, as it ranks below the threshold of the Scoville scale.

It’s often drizzled over noodles and rice bowl dishes called donburi, which makes the dish extra delicious.

Also read: 22 best sauces for seasoning your rice

Karashi

Karashi is a condiment that’s quite similar to wasabi in terms of its pungent odor and taste, as it’s made from yellow mustard. Just a little over the Scoville scale’s threshold, karashi is said to have a stronger spiciness compared to western-style mustard that goes well with sausages, tonkatsu pork cutlets, and shumai dumplings.

Those who love to eat natto (fermented soybeans) know that karashi is great to pair with this dish, as it balances its earthy/pungent flavor by providing a sharp edge to its overall taste.

Yuzukosho

Yuzukosho is a delicious condiment that also bears the name of the southern Japanese province where it originated: Kyushu. This condiment is made by grinding the peel of the citrus fruit called “yuzu” and green chili peppers, then salt’s added in order to create the tangy, spicy paste that has a texture that’s very similar to pesto.

Japanese people often use the yuzukosho as a favorite condiment for yakitori chicken, fish, and steak.

three filled condiment

Sansho pepper

Sansho pepper is a type of small, green peppercorn with a sharp and citrusy flavor. They’re similar to the indigenous Chinese Sichuan peppercorns, except they have a much stronger spiciness that creates a temporary tingling effect in the mouth that’s estimated to last for a good 10 seconds.

The ground sansho pepper is best used for seasoning grilled foods, such as broiled eel and yakitori chicken.

Koregusu

A condiment that has its roots in the island of Okinawa, koregusu is a pungent, hot, and very spicy sauce. Koregusu is made from a combination of the small island chili peppers and a local alcoholic drink called awamori.

Koregusu is an all-around condiment that goes well with most Japanese dishes, from stir-fried goya chanpuru (made with bitter melon) to soba noodles (Okinawan style).

Takanotsume (Hawk claw chili)

Takanotsume (hawk claw chili) eerily looks like an eagle’s talon; that’s why the Japanese gave it its name!

It’s the only variety of pepper in Japanese cuisine that’s dried and ground up to make chili powder. It can also be finely sliced and added to soups, noodles, and other dishes to give an extra kick to the flavor.

Takanotsume ranks up there with the other top spicy condiments on the Scoville scale, so if you’re craving some really spicy food, then you should ask for this condiment to add to your favorite Japanese dish!

Hot and spicy Japanese dishes

Taco rice

Although taco rice is an indigenous Mexican cuisine, the US occupation of Okinawa post-World War II (and continuing to this day) brought this dish to the Southeast Asian island nation of Japan.

However, taco rice isn’t exactly a creation by the Latinos, but rather, a fusion of Mexican salsa and taco ingredients (which is spicy). It’s loved by the Latino group of the US forces in Southern Japan.

The end result is a spicy rice dish that stir-fries the rice with various ingredients, such as onion, clove garlic, chili powder, cumin, chopped green onions, oregano, salt, water, and cooking oil.

Mabu tofu

The mabu or “mapo” tofu dish is believed to be originally a Chinese delicacy. It was just merely adopted by the Japanese after many centuries of trade with their neighbors.

However, it’s undeniably delicious, packing a punch in the spice department, and is widely available across Japan.

The best thing about mabu tofu is that it’s easy to prepare, is spicy yet smooth to the taste, and is a very flavorful dish that’ll have you coming back for more once you’ve sampled it!

Also read: a deliciously flavored Japanese ginger salad dressing you have to try

Tan tan ramen

Tan tan ramen is well known in Japan and is a favorite among white-collar workers across Japan. This is a great example of turning a Japanese staple (traditional favorite bowl of ramen noodles) into an exploding hot and spicy delicacy that’s easy to like.

Sure, this dish is certainly not for the faint-hearted, as it’s infused with beef, chili oil, fresh chili peppers, and lots of black pepper. But underneath all that spiciness is a very delicious Japanese noodle dish!

Geki kara miso ramen

It’s a well-known fact that Thailand, China, and South Korea have more hot and spicy foods compared to Japan. In fact, expats visiting or living in the island nation often complain that despite dishes being labeled as “spicy”, they end up disappointingly mild!

The slightest level of heat detected by the taste receptors of customers eating spicy foods at an ethnic restaurant will quickly produce exclamations of “karai!” (hot!).

Hokkaido, the frigid northernmost island of Japan, however, is an exception to this cliché. Perhaps having too much winter on the island made the locals crave something more than just the age-old favorite miso ramen soup, because its spiciness has been dialed up to 11!

Geki kara miso ramen (super spicy miso ramen), mixed with chili oil, can provide a deep burn for anyone left unimpressed with Japanese-level spiciness. Some ramen convenience stores will even give away an entire habanero super chili pepper at your request if you think the basic geki kara miso ramen soup isn’t hot and spicy enough.

Japanese curry

Japanese curry is derived from the original curries frmo the UK and India at the height of the now-defunct British Empire. However, chefs have created a distinct taste and characteristics to make it unique from its predecessors.

Japanese curry restaurant chains, such as Coco Ichibanya, have been developing ways to surprise their customers with new levels of spiciness in their curry recipes in the pursuit to tame their tastebuds.

Going into these curry restaurants around Japan, you can expect to get very delicious curry recipes. But once you go beyond the spiciness level of 8 or 9, you won’t get any more additional flavors. Instead, more peppers and chili powder is added to the dish (WARNING: they can go up to 12 sometimes).

To get the best experience of enjoying the taste of Japanese curry, order the medium-hot curry recipes.

Also read: these are all the types of Japanese ramen

Mentaiko

Mentaiko is known in English as a spicy cod roe and is a popular ingredient in Japanese cuisine. You can find this delicacy in both affordable and fine dining restaurants.

In case you’ve never tried the mentaiko before, then you may think that it’s not very tasty based on its physical appearance. However, Ilm positive that you’ll love it once you try it!

I highly recommend that beginners sample the mentaiko pasta first before ordering any other variations of this dish. It’s an amalgamation of Italian and Japanese cuisines, which is absolutely amazing!

How to order spicy Japanese food in a restaurant in Japan

These days, foreign tourists do a Google search for the best places to go eat out prior to their visit to Japan. They’re very excited to try the local foods and drinks, and the traditional Japanese pubs called “izakaya” are a popular destination.

However, if you’re not familiar even with just the basics of the Japanese language, then you might have second thoughts about stepping into these food stores and restaurants.

Here’s a quick guide on how to order spicy Japanese food like a local:

  1. Choose the izakaya or restaurant you want to go to.
  2. Walk in and find a table. You may be greeted by one of their staff by saying “Irasshaimase! Nanmei-sama desu ka?” (ようこそ!何人?, Welcome! How many people?) To which you can reply with, “hitori desu” (一人で, just one person), or “futari desu” (二人です, two people), or “san nin desu” (三人です, three people), and so on. Remember to get familiar with Japanese counting when you order your dish.
  3. Sit down and wait for the staff to hand you their menu. Not all izakaya does this, but those that do will give you a small wet hand towel called “oshibori” that you can wash your hands with. As a courtesy, you say, “Arigato gozaimasu (thank you)” quietly. Things may go differently in a ramen specialty shop/restaurant, so don’t expect this to happen all the time.
  4. Start ordering. Say “辛いらラーメンを一つお願いします” (karai ramen wo hitotsu onegai shimasu), which is translated to English as “spicy ramen, one please.” Sometimes, the shop may offer you a free drink along with your spicy ramen. But if you want something specific, then just order that.
  5. Get the check and say “okaikei onegai shimasu” (check, please). Then pay your bill.

Also read: top 3 sushi sauces you must try

Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

We now have "cooking Japanese with ease", our full recipe book and video course with step-by-step tutorials on your favorite recipes.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.