There is a significant portion of the Japanese cuisine that has spiciness as its central theme and it has even become a cult in Japan and elsewhere.
The fact of the matter is that traditional Japanese foods are not spicy, and even their many re-interpretations of Western foods are quite tame.
But knowing the Japanese, they can turn any ordinary dish into something explosive to your taste and will leave you baffled and still be talking about it even weeks after you’ve had a bite.
The wasabi, for example, is just one ingredient that has turned dozens of Japanese spicy foods extraordinary and infamous around the world.
Today we will explore “tsurai” or “karai” Japanese foods that deal heavily with the spiciness of the dish.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 Etymology
- 2 How Spicy is Typical Japanese Food?
- 3 Hot and Spicy Japanese Condiments
- 4 Hot and Spicy Japanese Dishes
- 5 How to Order Spicy Japanese Food in a Restaurant in Japan
The Japanese equivalent of the word “spicy” would be “karai”, “karakuchi” – or simply just “supaishii.”
The term “tsurai,” although it has a similar meaning to the other words mentioned above, it is used more to indicate an emotional state than a physical feeling or taste, but it can still be used to imply one is 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 with 1) being its wide variety of dishes and 2) its availability in many different delicious flavors.
While it is a common misconception that there is plenty of hot and spicy food in Japan, the truth is that it is 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 it is commonly found in the southern region, which has been strongly influenced by the Koreans and the Chinese historically.
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:
|Capsaicin, Dihydrocapsaicin||15,000,000 to 16,000,000|
|Piperine||100,000 – 200,000|
Hot and Spicy Japanese Condiments
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.
This Japanese spicy condiment is actually a combination of spices blend including ginger, seaweed, sesame seeds, sansho pepper, and red pepper.
The 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 is often used to drizzle over noodles and rice bowl dishes called donburi which makes the dish extra delicious.
Karashi is a condiment that’s quite similar to wasabi in terms of its pungent odor and taste as it is 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 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 it is added with salt in order to create the tangy, spicy paste that has a texture that’s very similar to presto.
Japanese people often use the yuzukosho as a favorite condiment for yakitori chicken, fish, and steak.
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.
A condiment that has its roots in the island of Okinawa, the koregusu is a pungent hot and very spicy sauce.
The 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 Champloo, made with bitter melon to soba noodles (Okinawan style).
Takanotsume (Hawk Claw Chili)
The 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 is dried and ground up to make chili powder. It can also be finely sliced and added to soups, noodles and other dishes to add an extra kick to the flavor.
The takanotsume ranks up there with the other top spicy condiments in the Scoville scale, so if you’re craving for some really spicy food, then you should ask for this condiment specifically to add to your favorite Japanese dish.
Hot and Spicy Japanese Dishes
Although an indigenous Mexican cuisine the US occupation of Okinawa post-World War Two and continuing to this day brought the taco rice to the South East Asian island nation of Japan.
However, the taco rice isn’t exactly a creation by the Latinos, but rather a fusion of the Mexican salsa and taco ingredients (which is spicy) and is loved by the Latino contingent 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.
The mabu or “mapo” tofu dish is believed to be a Chinese delicacy originally and was just merely adopted by the Japanese after many centuries of trade with their neighbors.
However, it is undeniably delicious, packing a punch in the spice department and widely available across Japan.
The best thing about the mabu tofu is that it’s easy to prepare, spicy yet smooth to the taste, and is a very flavorful dish that you’ll come back for more once you’ve sampled it.
Tan Tan Ramen
The tan tan ramen is well known in Japan and is a favorite among salarymen across Japan. This is a great example of turning a Japanese staple food of a 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 is infused with beef, chili oil, fresh chili peppers and lots of black pepper, but underneath all that spiciness is a very delicious Japanese noodle.
Geki Kara Miso Ramen
It is a well-known fact that Thailand, China, and South Korea have more hot and spicy foods compared to Japan, in fact, ex-pats visiting or living in the island nation often complain that despite dishes being labeled as “spicy” 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 in the island made the locals crave for 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 was not hot and spicy enough.
The Japanese curry derived from the original curries that originated in 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 level 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 beyond the spiciness level of 8 or 9, you won’t get any more additional flavors but instead more peppers and chili powder is added to the dish (WARNING: they can go up to 12 sometimes).
To get the best experience in enjoying the taste of Japanese curry, order the medium-hot curry recipes.
Also read: these are all the types of Japanese ramen
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, I am positive that you will 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 is an amalgamation of the 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 would have second thoughts stepping into these food stores and restaurants.
Here’s a quick guide on how to order spicy Japanese food like a local:
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- Choose the izakaya or restaurant you want to go to.
- 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.
- Sit down and wait for the staff to hand you over their menu. Not all izakaya does this, but those that do would 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.
- 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 in 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.
- Get the check and say “okaikei onegai shimasu” (check, please), then pay your bill.
Also read: top 3 sushi sauces you must try