Flash in the pan

Overdue praise for the shishito 

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It wasn’t love at first bite, but I finally warmed up to the shishito pepper. 

The name is an abbreviation of shishitogarashi, which means “the tip of this pepper looks like a lion’s face” in Japanese. My simple description is: finger-length, thin-skinned, wrinkled and usually mild, with occasional hot ones.   

I first discovered this pepper at a Santa Fe farmers market where growers bill them as “frying chiles.” 

This distinction is important because roasted green chile is a sacred autumn tradition in New Mexico, where chile roasters are in seemingly every parking lot and open space. Using propane-heated, rotating steel-mesh cages (think giant hamster wheels), the hot roaster spins as the chiles inside are tossed and cooked until they are collapsed and blistered. Their intoxicating, hunger-inducing fragrance fills the air. Locals call it New Mexican aromatherapy.  

Roasted green chile is arguably the backbone of New Mexican cuisine, thanks to a simple and delicious formula: add green chile to food and add the phrase “green chile” to what you call it. Thus, a cheeseburger becomes a green chile cheeseburger. Scrambled eggs become green chile scrambled eggs, and so on. 

At the Santa Fe farmers market, shishito growers have skillets in their stalls which they use to demonstrate the shishito’s fry-ability.  They fry their shishitos in a few drops of oil and sample them to customers. I was one such sampler, and I was not impressed. The frying seemed like a gimmick and didn’t fill the air with as much fragrance as traditional New Mexican chile varieties, like Big Jim, Sandia and Numex. It took a farmer in Montana, where I now live, to turn this perception upside down. And all he had to do was let the shishitos ripen. 

Any pepper will eventually turn red if you leave it long enough, and my farmer friend waits until his shishito crop resembles a Christmas sweater before bringing his red and green mix to the market. The red shishitos add a pleasing sweetness to the mix, making it more complex. Finally, after years of denial, I hopped aboard the shishito bandwagon. 

Back in Santa Fe, the lower heat of the shishito was a turn-off, but now that I’m older and have less to prove, I don’t mind milder chiles because I can eat more of them. With the help of my friend’s red and green shishitos, I’ve converted my burgers, eggs, soups, and everything else within reach into New Mexican-style cuisine. 

Here is a recipe for lemon miso shishitos that brings us full circle to the pepper’s Japanese roots.  It’s based on the blistered shishitos on the menu at the acclaimed Nobu restaurants. I’ve added salmon to make it a complete meal rather than an appetizer, and the lemon miso glaze is a perfect sauce for salmon. I serve the shishitos and salmon with jasmine rice rather than 

Japanese rice, because jasmine rice adds a lovely fragrance that dances elegantly with the aroma of the shishito. 

This recipe employs white miso, which I prefer over the darker varieties. And while shishitos are sold as frying chiles in New Mexico, I prefer my shishitos broiled. 

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