When the weather is swelteringly hot, there’s nothing more appealing than an ice-cold drink or snack. One of these is kakigōri, a mound of shaved ice that is topped with a sweet, sticky syrup. What makes it different from a snow cone is that the ice is shaved ultra-thin with a plane rather than crushed or pulverized. This results in a very fluffy, airy ice that doesn’t clump up but just gently melts as you spoon it into your mouth.
The history of kakigōri goes back about 1,000 years to the Heian Period. A dish made of ice that is finely shaved down with a sharp blade and served with a sweet tree or flower syrup is recorded in “Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book)” by Sei Shonagon, who was a lady of the imperial court in the early part of the 11th century. But this refreshing snack was available only to the very rich, since ice was such a rare commodity in the summer. It didn’t reach the general public until the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s and 1870s, when transportation links from the cities to the places where ice could be harvested got a lot better. Places called hyōsui-ten, or ice water stores, popped up in the summer months to serve this refreshingly icy snack.
A custom that started around this time was the hanging of a colorful banner called a hyōki (ice flag) outside a store to announce the arrival of kakigōri for the season. It sports the kanji for ice (kōri) in bold red in the middle with blue waves and flying birds in the background, and is still used today. Kakigōri has become such a symbol of summer that it’s a recognized kigo, or a word that indicates the season, in haiku rules.
Dedicated ice-water stores have disappeared from Japanese streets, but you can still get kakigōri at many eateries in the summer, including traditional Japanese-style tea and pastry shops called amami-dokoro. It’s also a fixture of summer street festivals called ennichi, along with other snacks such as cotton candy and takoyaki (octopus dumplings).
The kakigōri at ennichi are quite simple and colorful, topped with brightly colored syrup, but the ones at amami-dokoro are quite refined, often using not-so-sweet syrups made from matcha green tea or kinako (toasted soybean flour), as well as sporting small scoops of ice cream or shiratama (soft mochi balls). Ironically, the best accompaniment to a large bowl of kakigōri is some hot green tea, since the ice tends to freeze up your mouth quite a bit.
You can also make your own kakigōri at home. Electric kakigōri machines are available, but in this second summer of restricted electricity using a hand-cranked one may be more appropriate. Besides, these are cheaper than the electric models and are fun for kids to operate.
The advantage to making it at home is that you can choose your own syrup flavors. My favorite is straight-up concentrated Calpis, a fermented dairy beverage that may be an acquired taste. Other people like a big dollop of concentrated milk, or simple sugar syrup with lemon. But whatever flavor it is, digging into a kakigōri takes me straight back to my childhood.