What's your summer food
Kakigori - shaved ice in all of its glory
As I write this, it’s the end of August. September is still hot in New York, but as a season it signals autumn. Where did the summer go? I spent so much of the 2021 summer months away from New York - two weeks in Paris, one week in Seattle, several days in Boston. This year, aside from some weekend trips (no planes!) to the Berkshires, D.C., and New Haven, I’ve largely stayed put. The hum of regularity in New York after years of COVID is calming even if the constant stench and noise drives me to ponder alternative locales. Don’t we all? I hope that my wanderlust will come back, but for now I want to avoid planes whenever possible.
To be completely honest, my food of summer is always watermelon. They are widely available for only a couple months in New York and I can kill one (large watermelon) per week, at least. I can’t say that I eat enough kakigori — Japanese shaved ice — to say it’s my summer food, but I just booked my September tickets to Japan (9 days split between Nara, Karuizawa, and Tokyo) and am feeling nostalgic for all of the kakigoris that I’ve eaten. It strikes me as a dessert that — unlike ice cream and parfait that I could eat year round — I would only reach for during the summer.
A classic uji kintoki kakigori from Kyoto, featuring shiratama dango.
Wikipedia tells a tale of shaved ice and sweet syrup being mentioned by the writer Sei Shonagon as early as the 11th century with the first official shop for kakigori emerging in 1869. From its earliest iterations of roughly hewn ice and sugar, kakigori has evolved to elaborate constructions that rival parfaits. There are so many varieties of shaved ice globally, I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what distinguishes a Japanese kakigori from its peers. The simplest kakigori stands that are often set up at summer festivals offer cups of freshly crushed ice and several bottles from which you can pour the brightly colored syrup of your choice - usually melon, strawberry, or lemon.
Then there are the kakigori that feature variations of mochi (i.e., kuzumochi, shiratama), fruit, ice cream, condensed milk, and freshly made syrups. I’d say that the most classic variation is uji kintoki, which features matcha syrup and anko paste, but the most memorable that I’ve eaten was at a small cafe in Miyajima and featured the floral tang of ume (green plum).
Kakigori can feature anything! Including figs and whipped cream.
I grew up with a hand cranked kakigori machine in the shape of a bear, much like this one. My brother, Kazu, and I didn’t do much of note with our shaved ice. He didn’t like the artificially flavored syrups and didn’t get much mileage out of it. I have a memory of dousing my ice with cranberry juice during the summers. Odd.
I don’t have a machine today, but if I did, I can see myself covering it with condensed milk and strawberries, or with a matcha syrup and anko paste as a party trick. Truthfully though, kakigori is best eaten at a cafe when you are so hot that you can’t stomach the thought of anything else.
A most minimalist uji kintoki from Mogmog in LIC
Kakigori in New York
There are several shops that serve kakigori (limiting this to Japanese shops) in New York, because this is the city where you can really find anything. I have only tried the varieties at Cha-an and Mogmog. I’ve been slacking, clearly, but I am looking forward to trying the kakigori in Nara, which is allegedly famous for its kakigori. In addition to Cha-an and Mogmog, I’ve heard that Tonchin, Kokage (sadly closing soon!), Ippudo, and Sweets Laboratory serve a version of kakigori. Please comment if you know of any others!
Uji kintoki from Cha-an
My last trip to Japan was in March 2020. It’s been over two years since my last visit, making this the longest gap to date. My camera roll is curiously short of kakigori though, as I generally visit in April/November to avoid the crushing humidity of Japanese summer.
Having said that, shaved ice variations are available year round at Grace Street. The versions there are elaborate and fun, if a little too sweet for my taste. I don’t get to Grace Street enough because it is in the worst area of NY (Penn Station I hate you), but the matcha cream puffs there are one of my favorite pastries in the city.
The Taiwanese chain Ice Monster was all the rage when I lived in Tokyo in 2016. It’s shaved ice was different in that the ice itself was flavored. Kakigori is generally based on a mound of just-freeze-water-ice.
As an aside, check out ZM Spalter’s piece on making her own umeshu (a concoction of ume and sugar soaked in alcohol that is served on the rocks or with sparkling water). The ume kakigori that I enjoyed in Miyajima did not contain alcohol, but the sweetness of umeshu would be absolutely delicious over a pile of shaved ice!
I spent several summer weeks in high school doing an internship of sorts with my cousin at the Kasuga Taisha in Nara. Nara summers are excruciatingly hot. I remember stopping by a kakigori stand almost daily for a cup of crushed ice that I topped with grapefruit syrup.
They are delicious, if perhaps on the more minimalist side of the kakigori spectrum.
Thank you Ayako, for knowing and sharing all of her NYC-Japanese food knowledge!