An Avalanche of Japanese Shave Ice
Before Norie Uematsu became a pastry chef, she waited all year for shave-ice season at home in Japan. Now, she decides when that season begins and ends.
At Cha-an Teahouse, in the East Village of New York, Ms. Uematsu serves refreshing bowls of kakigori — the Japanese shave ice — as soon as the subway stations are hot and sticky. She turns the handle of her vintage shave-ice machine through the end of September, or until she runs out of ripe white peaches, whichever comes first.
All kakigori starts with a block of plain ice. A machine locks the ice in place and spins it against a blade, shaving off soft, sheer flakes. As the ice piles up, kakigori makers add syrups, purées and other sweet toppings. The dessert is endlessly adaptable, which is one reason so many pastry chefs in the United States are not only adding kakigori to their menus but also extending its season.
When prepared with skill, kakigori is a feat of texture — a tall structure of uniformly light, airy and almost creamy crystals that never crunch, but deliver flavor as they dissolve on the tongue.
“To get it really fluffy, you adjust the angle of the blade,” said Ms. Uematsu, turning an iron knob on her machine. “But the finer it is, the harder it is to work with.” As the ice melts, or is worn down, the machine must be adjusted to keep the shavings downy.
In August, at a cafe in Yamanashi, Japan, I ordered a bowl of kakigori made from a block of natural ice. Someone had delivered it from the Yatsugatake Mountains, a volcanic range to the north. It seemed over the top — all that labor for a piece of ice? — but it also testified to the history of kakigori.
Before the development of freezers, shave ice was an extravagant dessert reserved only for those who could pay for the luxury of ice carved from frozen lakes and mountains and transported at great cost.
As Ms. Uematsu pointed out, kakigori has come a long way from its elite roots in the Heian period (from the end of the eighth through the 12th century). “When I was a kid, every house in Japan had a cheap kakigori machine, usually with a cute character on it, like Hello Kitty,” said Ms. Uematsu, who was born in 1980 in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture. “And you could buy commercial syrups for flavoring them.”
But kakigori masters at cafes in Japan can still be fiercely competitive. Many shops have lines out the door, and attentive hosts to manage those lines. Atelier Sekka, a small, serene dessert shop in the Sugamo neighborhood of Tokyo, buys enormous glassy blocks of natural ice from Mount Fuji to use as the base for its pristine mounds of kakigori. On a recent weekday morning, there was an hourlong wait for a seat.
A vintage shave-ice machine sits at the center of the stylish Tokyo tearoom Higashiya Ginza, where servers layer the shavings with plums poached in honey. At Himitsudo, where you can order while standing in line on the street, cooks turn out bowls overflowing with puréed mango and other fruits.
I found my favorite kakigori of the summer at a cafe called Kuriya Kashi Kurogi, on the grounds of the University of Tokyo. The ice was beautifully shaved with an electric machine and saturated with fresh soy milk and sweetened condensed milk, layered with whipped cheese and finally crowned with a thick, sweet and salty purée of fresh edamame. Every now and then, digging around, I hit a ridge of red bean paste.
Yoojin Chung, the general manager of Stonemill Matcha in San Francisco, added kakigori to the menu in June, about a month after the cafe opened. Though elaborately built kakigori are in style, Ms. Chung remembers tasting a particularly simple version at a cafe in Kyoto, with no toppings or creams at all, just matcha syrup.
“It was this ginormous green spectacle that came on a tray, at least 12 inches tall, and it was very intense,” Ms. Chung recalled. “I was shocked how it kept its shape despite having all this syrup.”
She compared the texture of perfect kakigori to flower petals — not quite powder and not quite grain — making it distinct from other kinds of shave ice. “It’s a simple thing that’s really hard to execute,” Ms. Chung said.
Stonemill serves a traditional kakigori, ujikintoki, doused with matcha syrup and finished with a touch of sweet red bean paste. Every day, the restaurant’s pastry chef, Mikiko Yui, makes coffee jelly and soft mochi to garnish it. The cafe will keep the dessert on the menu through early October.
Cha-an Teahouse has been serving ujikintoki and other kinds of kakigori in New York for more than a decade. Ms. Uematsu drew from her own experience with the sweet as well as her training as a chef to develop the white peach kakigori made from poached fruit and decorated with chewy, housemade peach gummies, cut into the shapes of stars and hearts.
As he prepared to open the David Chang restaurant Majordomo in Los Angeles in January, the chef de cuisine, Marc Johnson, learned about shave-ice culture through local Korean and Taiwanese shops (cultures which also have rich histories of shave ice) as well as a popular Instagram account run by Margaret Lam.
“She’d go to these kakigori competitions and jams where people would just get together and show off their craft,” said Mr. Johnson, who does not employ a pastry chef and was eager to figure out the technique.
He found that the more delicate the shavings, the faster they melted. Kakigori makers often press the ice very gently with their hands, giving it a distinct rounded shape; but if packed too firmly, those soft, feathery crystals can freeze together as hard, wet clumps.
Mr. Johnson consulted Majordomo’s ice supplier, Gordon Bellaver of Penny Pound Ice, who sells to bars in Southern California.
Mr. Bellaver freezes 300-pound blocks very slowly, usually over the course of several days, in machines that keep the water constantly agitating so that impurities are pushed to its edges and the ice freezes crystal clear. He cut pieces to fit Majordomo’s electric Taiwanese shave-ice machine, designed for ribbon-style ice.
“They were losing too many blocks,” Mr. Bellaver said. “I mean, they would put a block in, and it would shatter.” Like generations of kakigori makers before him, Mr. Johnson learned to temper the ice, leaving it out of the freezer to warm up, so it wouldn’t buckle under the pressure of the machine.
When Majordomo opened, citrus was in season in California, so Mr. Johnson layered the ice with pieces of blood orange and grapefruit. Later in the year, inspired by the surrounding Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, he made horchata kakigori, spooning rice pudding into the bottom of each bowl, and squirting the shaved ice with coffee syrup and a strong cold brew made with horchata. He hid pockets of caramelized sweetened condensed milk and whipped cream in its layers.
The kitchen can make only one shave ice at a time, and the dessert has been so popular that Mr. Johnson recently added a message to the menu, warning that kakigori can take about 15 minutes to prepare. Orders haven’t slowed down.
Majordomo served strawberry kakigori at the end of summer, and when strawberries disappeared from the market, switched to avocado. If Mr. Johnson keeps updating the dessert, it can stay on the menu all year long, and kakigori season never has to end.
New York Times, By Tejal Rao,