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Mild little Japanese shishito peppers are having their moment

Mild little Japanese shishito peppers are having their moment
Spicy shishitos with crispy quinoa. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Go to almost any Japanese restaurant, and shishito peppers are as much a staple on the menu as bowls of edamame. Quickly sauteed until the vibrant green peppers soften and begin to blister, they're often served in a small bowl, seasoned with soy sauce and a maybe a touch of vinegar, and garnished with sprinkling of bonito flakes.

The Japanese peppers can be found year-round, though the growing season typically extends from summer to early fall. Thin-skinned, the delicate finger-length peppers are known for a mild sweetness offset with a gentle heat.  Tame as they often are, every once in a while a pepper packs a jolt of heat, and tackling a plate can be quite an adventure.

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Tempura shishito peppers with sriracha salt.
Tempura shishito peppers with sriracha salt. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Readily available in Japanese grocery stores, the peppers can also be found at farmers markets and are increasingly turning up in large supermarkets as they gain popularity. At the same time, chefs and home cooks are beginning to appreciate the pepper's versatility.

"We all love shishitos in Japanese restaurants, but it's fun to try something different," says chef Neal Fraser. His menu at Redbird in downtown Los Angeles includes a spicy shishito dish tossed with bright fresh citrus juice and fish sauce, a creation of Redbird's chef de cuisine, Jason Bowlin. The dish is served with crispy red quinoa and shaved orange bottarga, a colorful play on flavors and textures. "It's at once salty and crunchy," says Fraser, "with just the right amount of acid."

"Shishito peppers are so popular right now," says chef Zaz Suffy, formerly chef de cuisine at the recently closed 100 Wines in San Diego and now at the Prado at Balboa Park. One of Suffy's favorite preparations is shishito tempura. But instead of serving the tempura with a classic dipping sauce, she sprinkles the pepper with bright red Sriracha salt she makes herself. "It adds a pop of flavor that balances the peppers perfectly."

Because of their small size and delicate walls, the peppers can be added to a variety of dishes — seeds and all. Slice them up and add them to scrambled eggs, or char them quickly on a grill, the smoky notes complimenting the delicate heat of the peppers. Use shishitos to add mild spice to salsas, gazpachos and rich stews, or quickly pickle the peppers to serve as an appetizer or cocktail garnish.

Shishito grilled cheese.
Shishito grilled cheese. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Or stuff the peppers with tuna or cheese — fresh goat cheese is a natural pairing, the gentle grassy notes of the cheese a compliment to the mild heat of the peppers. The peppers also work well in a banh mi-inspired grilled cheese sandwich, the peppers layered with pickled carrot and daikon strips and sprigs of fresh cilantro.

Jonathan Whitener, chef and co-owner of the recently opened restaurant Here's Looking at You in Koreatown, offers his own take on the peppers. He blisters the peppers and serves them alongside tonnato, an Italian tuna-based sauce he flavors with lemon, capers, fish sauce and Thai chiles. Whitener then garnishes the sauce with a pinch of the powdered dried plum known as huamei. The bright pink powder is at once salty, tart and sweet. "Shishito preparation is often so repetitive," Whitener says. "I wanted to think outside the box."

Twitter: @noellecarter

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