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Japanese Prickly Ash / Zanthoxylum piperitum / sansho (Japanese)

Isei: And do you remember using cyanide to catch fish and insects?
Seinosuke: Oh yes. It seems incredible now, but I just used to hang the jar, full of poison, on the wall at home.
Isei: What we did with fish was wrap the powder in a piece of cloth, tie it on the end of a stick, and dip it in the river; and in no time at all, fish would float up to the surface. You could bring them round by putting them in clean well water. Surprisingly enough, we even ate the things later; it didn’t seem to do us any harm. Another way of doping them was with a mixture of crushed prickly-ash and tea berries.
From “Memories of Silk and Straw, A Self-Portrait of Small-Town Japan,” by Junichi Saga, translated by Garry Evans (Kodansha International)

In mid-autumn, the small tree known as sansho or Japanese prickly ash (Zanthoxylum piperitum) , produces red berries. As they ripen they turn brown and split to reveal shiny black seeds. Traditionally, the seeds are ground with a mortar made from prickly ash wood, and this produces one of the few spices used in Japanese cuisine. The resulting sansho pepper is pungent with a lemony tang, and it is popular sprinkled over unagi (grilled eel). The tender spring leaves are also aromatic and make attractive garnishes for dishes such as goma-dofu (sesame tofu). However, there is a spectacular insect that also finds the leaves tasty. The beautiful swallowtail butterfly often lays its eggs on prickly ash shrubs, so at this time of year you might find large, bright-green caterpillars steadily munching their way through the last of the autumn leaves. They are very neat eaters, and can pick the small leaflets clean, leavingjust the prickly veins behind. Last year I found several of these caterpillars on a small prickly ash tree, and one day, around the end of October, I watched one of them attach itself to the spiny tree trunk with a silk thread. A few minutes later it started to change color, and soon it became a chrysalis, well camouflaged against the rough bark where it would sleep the whole winter through.

The Japan Times: Oct. 21, 2004
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