A Japanese Shaved Ice Treat to Beat the Summer Heat
With the weather heating up, it’s time for Japan’s favorite summer treat known as kakigori, a frozen shaved ice dessert and flavored syrup. The quintessential kakigori is served in a bowl so that it can be piled high with plenty of toppings and syrup, and then eaten with a spoon. The texture of kakigori differs from other types of shaved ice in that the ice isn’t crushed, but rather it’s shaved off of a large block of ice with a sharp blade, giving it a distinct feathery texture, similar to that of newly fallen snow. In addition to flavored syrups, more decadent kakigori toppings include condensed milk, mochi (glutinous rice dumplings), sweetened red beans, fresh fruit, whipped cream, and even ice cream.
Kakigori has been enjoyed in Japan for centuries, with references to it being found as early as the 11th century when it was a delicacy that was reserved only for the wealthy nobility. In those days, the ice was shaved by hand with a knife and flavored with naturally sweet plant sap and flower nectar. Fortunately, thanks to modern refrigeration techniques, kakigori can now be enjoyed by anyone. The Japan Kakigori Association has even declared July 25 as “Kakigori Day” because reading the date 7/25 as “na-tsu-go” sounds a lot like “summer ice” or “natsu-gori”.
If you’re going to be in Japan this summer or you’re looking for an icy homemade treat to cool off with, then check out this complete guide to kakigori.
Where to Eat Kakigori
Japanese shaved ice can be found anywhere from at yatai (street food vendors) at summer festivals to kakigori specialty shops. It’s not hard to find—just look for a banner or sign with the Japanese character for ice (氷) in red and a picture of blue waves beneath it. Many restaurants, cafés, tea houses, and dessert shops also offer kakigori on their menu during the summer.
You can also try making kakigori from the comfort of home using a specialty shaved ice maker. These typically come with a custom mold for freezing a single-serving sized block of ice to use in the shaved ice maker.
Kakigori Flavors and Toppings
If you’re trying kakigori at a summer festival, you’ll typically be handed a cone or cup of plain shaved ice with the option to flavor it yourself using a variety of brightly colored syrups. Some of the more common flavored syrups include red strawberry or cherry flavors, melon flavor in green, yellow lemon or yuzu citrus flavors, and “Hawaiian blue”, which is close to a blue raspberry flavor. All of these syrup flavors are similar to the flavored syrups used for Western style shaved ice, so just squeeze over your shaved ice and enjoy.
Japan also has a number of uniquely Japanese flavors and toppings for shaved ice. These include matcha (green tea), rennyu (sweetened condensed milk), and kuromitsu (a dark syrup similar to molasses), and kinako (roasted soy flour). Kinako has a nutty taste and gentle maple-like sweetness, and was traditionally used in Japanese desserts before sugar was introduced to Japan. Other uniquely Japanese toppings for kakigori include adzuki (sweetened red beans) and anko (sweet red bean paste), zeri (flavored jelly made from a vegan gelatin known as kanten or agar agar), and shiratama (miniature mochi rice flour dumplings).
Many specialty shops combine these ingredients to make their own unique kakigori flavors, and some shops have even come up with inventive new combinations such as potato and corn, carrot, or yuzu and daikon. One hotel in Tokyo has even created its own luxury style of kakigori that combines specialty flavors with champagne.
Unique Kakigori Varieties
Because of the large number of toppings that can be added to kakigori, there are countless varieties and ways to serve it. A few of these specialty varieties have become so popular that they’ve spread from the places they originated to become a big hit across Japan. One such flavor is ujikintoki, or shaved ice made with matcha green tea and red bean. This style of kakigori originated in Kyoto. It’s named for Uji, a town in Kyoto prefecture that makes a premium grade of Japanese green tea, and for Sakata Kintoki (a famous red-faced folk hero) due to its red bean topping.
Another famous style of kakigori is called “shirokuma” from Kagoshima prefecture in southern Japan. It includes condensed milk, fruit, red bean paste, and flavored agar agar zeri. As “shirokuma” means “polar bear” in Japanese, the toppings are sometimes arranged on the shaved ice in the shape of a bear’s face. People say that shirokuma shaved ice got its name from the polar bear logo printed on the label of the condensed milk brand that was originally used to make it. Shirokuma-style kakigori is now so famous throughout Japan that you can even find a commercial version sold in the freezer section of most Japanese convenience stores.
Be Sure to Try Kakigori in Japan, the Shaved Iced Dessert That Is the Quintessential Summer Treat!
Kakigori is a strong source of summer nostalgia for people in Japan, right along with fireworks, yukata, and going to summer festivals. You haven’t experienced Japanese summer until you’ve had a bowl of this delicious and refreshing frozen treat. Thanks to the wide variety of flavors and toppings available, kakigori is a dessert that can be made to suit anyone’s taste, and it’s a great way to cool down in the summer humidity—just watch out for brain freeze! Itadakimasu!