Shishito vs. Mothra (Well, sort of)

A bowl of blistered shishito peppers tossed with sesame oil and soy sauce.
A bowl of blistered shishito peppers tossed with sesame oil and soy sauce.

A few years ago, I noticed that shishito peppers started showing up on a lot of Asian appetizer menus, especially in Japanese restaurants. Akin to the Spanish padrón, the peppers were usually served grilled to the point of blistering and tossed with sesame oil and either soy sauce or sea salt.

After I’d ordered them once, I was hooked.

Small, slender, and thin-skinned, the bite-size shishitos deliver a nice mild pepper flavor … usually. Making your way through a plate of shishitos is pepper roulette. There’s always going to be at least one that is really spicy, and that’s part of the fun.

Having gotten me addicted to shishitos, the pepper gods took them away. Though still listed on menus, restaurants rarely had shishitos stocked in the kitchen.

Well fine then, I’ll just grow my own!

That seemed totally doable until I started looking for seeds, circa 2013. Though I scoured the seed racks at local stores, shishitos were not to found amidst the packets of Anaheim and ancho, bell and banana, habañero and jalapeño, sweet and serrano, Tabasco and Thai.

Though I prefer to buy local, I was not to be deterred in my shishito mission, so I turned to the internet. That search turned up the Kitazawa Seed Company in Oakland, which started in 1917 and calls itself “the oldest seed company in America specializing in Asian vegetable seeds.” None of which are GMO, btw.

The story of the company is fascinating in and of itself (yes, WWII impacted the family and business), but if you’re a seed catalog fan, this is one to get lost in. Each section tells a bit about the general vegetable, and then more specific info about each particular one. Who knew there were so many cool heirloom varieties of eggplant, beans, and radishes? (In addition to the shishitos, I ended up with a couple packets of daikon radishes and carrots.)

In the spring of 2013, I planted some of the shishito seeds and waited. The plants gradually grew as expected, and when the time came, I transplanted them to a large container and waited. Then, I waited some more. I reasoned that because I’d transplanted the young plants into such a deep container they were just busy growing their roots into it.

There was no shishito harvest in 2013, but – since I don’t grow food for a living, and since I had a greenhouse where they’d be protected from frost, and since I wasn’t going to let peppers get the best of me – I left the shishitos alone.

In 2014, there were shishitos!

According to the oracle that is Wikipedia, “The name refers to the fact that the tip of the chili pepper (唐辛子 tōgarashi?) looks like the head of a lion (獅子 shishi?), and in Japanese it is often abbreviated as shishitō.”
According to the oracle that is Wikipedia, “The name refers to the fact that the tip of the chili pepper (唐辛子 tōgarashi?) looks like the head of a lion (獅子 shishi?), and in Japanese it is often abbreviated as shishitō.” I don’t get the lion’s head, but …

This year, 2015, there have been a LOT of shishitos!! As of September, I’ve picked the plants over five times. I usually make them in the manner I first discovered them – grilled and tossed in sesame oil and sea salt or soy sauce – and serve them with sushi. They’re also great little snacks, and I even threw some of the leftovers into a chile verde sauce where they blended in just fine.

Last week, a new wrinkle quite literally crept its way into the shishito saga. Something on the plants caught my eye and I realized there was a big fat tobacco hornworm that had made itself at home. The first time I had even seen such a bug was when a neighbor discovered a tomato hornworm on one of her plants. I believe her husband’s eardrums may still be recovering from the piercing screams.

To the internet I went to find out what a tobacco hornworm becomes, and discovered it turns into a Sphinx moth. That would explain the captivating creature I’d seen buzzing around the honeysuckle like a hummingbird after dusk one evening.

The moths seem pretty cool, so – though I will probably regret it down the road — I named the hornworm “Horace” and let it be. I figured I’d have about a week or so of munching and then he would do his thing and become a sphinx moth.

"Horace" the Hornworm
“Horace” the Hornworm

When I found the second hornworm chewing away on the other side of the plants, I named it “Horatio” and let it be. When I found the third one, I did not name it and moved it to a plant I was planning on taking out anyway.

As for Horace and Horatio, well … this is why you don’t let your kids name the chickens.

 

 

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