This week my local shrine, Ishikiri Jinja (a destination for pilgrims seeking the healing of various unwanted growths), hosted its annual fireworks-filled summer festival. The pilgrim road was lined for several kilometers with stalls selling the usual summer-fair wares and, of course, the traditional seasonal foods and sweets.
At most fairs, among the culinary delights, such as grilled shoyu-basted corn on the cob and chocolate-dipped bananas, you will find colorful banners advertising the freezing-cold snack, kakigori. Shaved, syrup-flavored ice, kakigori is the Japanese version of what Americans call a snow cone.
I first encountered kakigori during a blistering summer in Yamagata Prefecture. On stifling days, my only reprieve was ducking into low-ceilinged, dirt-floored ice parlors — sometimes more than once a day. Only 100 yen (12 years ago) bought ice-cold relief served in a shallow-footed, cut-glass dish. My favorite flavor syrup was tart strawberry, and then green melon, sour lemon, super-sweet grape and back to tart strawberry.
Born in the street stalls at local summer fairs, kakigori has graduated to its very own year-round sweet shops and appears seasonally on dessert menus at restaurants all over Japan.
At an open-air festival booth kakigori is most likely to be covered in your choice of sticky-sweet artificially flavored, phosphorescent fruit syrup. At specialty shops, you will see the shaved ice topped with sweet red beans (zenzai), ice cream or various new sauces, including one very popular sweetened condensed-milk-like sauce.
At fine restaurants, like the place where I cook, the classic hot-weather dessert course is a refined version of kakigori with a poached green apricot, aoume. Whether it is candy syrup, stewed fruit or adzuki beans the concept is the same — shaved ice topped with something marvelously sweet.
Making kakigori at home is a fairly simple process that, once mastered, will serve you well all summer long. Shaving the ice is not really possible without some sort of machine, hand-operated like the kagegori-ki of olden days, or one of the inexpensive but reliable electric models. On top of freshly shaved ice, use any of the many commercially available types of syrup or make your own by poaching fruit in simple syrup.
Another popular topping is sweet adzuki. Adzuki is available already sweetened in the can and is a fairly consistent product, but it may also be made by boiling dried beans with sugar at home.
Syrup with poached fruit
Professional cooks will clarify their simple syrup with egg whites, but at home this step is unnecessary. Choose fruit in season. The goal is to make a flavored syrup rather than to have nice-looking poached fruit, so don’t worry if the fruit falls apart. The simplest simple syrup consists of equal parts by weight of water and sugar, and may be adjusted to make more or less.
500 ml water
500 grams sugar
500 grams fresh fruit (strawberries, peaches, or grapes, etc.)
1) In a clean, nonreactive (not aluminum or other reactive metal) saucepan combine the water and the sugar and heat until dissolved.
2) Add washed, fairly largely cut fruit to the syrup, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes, tasting at intervals and removing from the heat when desired flavor is achieved.
3) Strain the syrup and cool the fruit and the liquid separately. The fruit will keep longest in the freezer if not used immediately; the syrup will keep very well in the refrigerator.
4) Serve the chilled syrup over shaved ice and garnish with stewed fruit.
Adzuki beans (zenzai)
Zenzai is served hot with mochi rice cakes in lacquered soup bowls during the winter months, and chilled with little mochi dumplings (shira tama) in the summer. It is also very popular as a topping for kakigori. The key to good color in your zenzai is to agitate the cooking bean liquid near the end of the process. Ladling out some of the liquid while cooking and letting it fall back into the pot, which introduces air into the mixture, does this best. Some people like their zenzai very sweet. This recipe starts with half the weight of the beans in sugar, and you may add more as you cook to sweeten to desired taste.
500 grams adzuki beans
250 grams sugar water
1) Cover the beans in a good amount of water and soak for anywhere from three to 24 hours.
2) Strain the beans and place in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil.
3) When the water has come to a hard boil, strain again, discarding this first water.
4) Again cover with water and bring to a boil once more before reducing heat. Simmer the beans until they begin to fall apart. Add hot water to the pot if the water level falls below the beans, taking care not to add too much hot water.
5) When the beans soften and begin to fall apart, add half of the sugar and cook for 10 minutes, then add the remaining sugar, occasionally aerating liquid with a ladle. Add more sugar if desired, to taste.
6) When beans are very soft and about half of the volume has fallen completely apart, remove from heat, cool and store, covered, in the refrigerator. Sugary foodstuffs like zenzai keep very well in the refrigerator if cooled and stored properly.