Close up, it looks like a colorful piece of art. Small crystals catching the light, shimmering in different shades. But what it actually is, won’t disappoint you either, because it is crazy delicious. Shaved ice topped with syrup, known in Japanese as Kakigōri, is a sweet specialty in the land of the rising sun. The shaved ice has a distinct, fluffy consistency which makes Kakigōri so special. It is the proper shaving – instead of crushing – that gives it a different texture than other ice desserts from around the world. The small crystals are slightly crunchy at first and quickly melt on your tongue. Almost like freshly fallen snow.
And then there comes the flavor. Whatever gets your kicks, you will definitely find your favorite among the huge range of available syrup toppings. People with an extra sweet tooth like adding a generous helping of sugary condensed milk. And if you prefer a fresh touch, fruits can be a great addition as well. Or how about some Anko, Japan’s typical red bean paste!? With the right toppings, it can even be a light and healthy treat that is very low in calories since the shaved ice itself only consists of plain water. The possibilities are pretty much endless. Most of the times you can even choose from several flavors to create the wildest and most colorful combos.
Here come the most popular Kakigōri flavors:
- “Blue Hawaii”
- Matcha Green Tea
- Sweet Plum
- Kinako (toasted soybean flour)
Where To Get Japanese Shaved Ice
Kakigōri is absolutely ubiquitous in Japan. After all, it is the perfect way to cool down in the country’s scorching summer heat. During that time of the year, you will find the shaved ice pretty much everywhere. Whether on small carts on the street, in cafés, restaurants or convenience stores, you will never have to walk more than a few minutes to get to your next dose of the icy delicacy. Also at summer festivals and fairs, Kakigōri is as much a staple as other Japanese snack favorites such as Takoyaki, Gyozas or Cotton Candy.
But how to find the colorful mountains in-between all the other delicious treats that Japan’s streets have to offer? Well, if you only learn one Japanese character, it should be the one for ice: 氷. Just look out for this kanji on banners around you and it will always guide you to the closest Kakigōri spot. While remembering Japanese characters may be difficult, we are sure that this one gives you a good motivation to never forget it anymore.
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Celebrating Shaved Ice With A Dedicated Kakigōri Festival
Now, if you can’t get enough of the sweet crystals and you have tried out all the standard toppings already, it is time for the next level. We proudly present: Kakigōri Mitsuri, dedicated festivals with the sole purpose of celebrating the shaved ice in all its glory. Ice lovers like you can find numerous of these festivals throughout the hot months. Just imagine that: a festival that only sells shaved ice in all the colors of the rainbow!
We promise you will be in heaven. Visitors can experience all sorts of weird and wonderful flavors of the sweet snack. Syrups and toppings range from conventional to extraordinary. Think of black shaved ice made from black beans, sesami and rice or crazy hot syrup made with Habanero chili. Also the toppings are countless. All kinds of fruits, sweetened red beans, tapioca pearls – you name it.
A special Kakigōri Mitsuri takes place at Himuro Shrine in the historic town of Nara. Ice sellers have come to this place where the god of ice is enshrined for more than a thousand years. The celebration at the beginning of May attracts ice vendors and visitors from all over Japan and the whole world every year. The offered Kakigōri varieties are complemented by a special traditional tea ceremony. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!
Another very popular one takes place every year between June and September at Namco Namjatown, a theme park in Tokyo. This festival is one of the few places where you can still try the dessert made from natural ice. According to the organizers of the event, their ice develops in a pond at minus seven to eight degrees over a period of ten days. The slow freezing makes the ice much harder than when it is produced artificially which supposedly gives it a special texture.
Yet, the popular dessert is not only limited to the hot time of the year anymore. It is now served all year round in special stores that are popping up all over the place. In Tokyo and other big cities, you will find ultra-hip stores with endless queues of shaved ice enthusiasts happy to stand in line for hours. The trend has moved far beyond taste and every cup of Kakigōri needs to be ready for presentation on Instagram. And the hype doesn’t stop on Japan’s borders. Similar shops are appearing in cool areas all across the globe these days. So you might be lucky and actually already have one close to you.
How To Make Kakigōri
While the little sculptures seem quite intricate and potentially difficult to master, the process is actually pretty easy if you take a few principles into consideration. The ice itself is made using a special shaving machine with the name Kakigōriki (かき氷機). Traditional machines that many Japanese families still have at home are operated manually by turning a crank. Also street vendors can be seen using these original apparatuses which simply spin a block of ice over a shaving blade.
The hand-operated machines come in many different shapes and colors, often in typical Japanese designs with playful motives. Restaurants, on the other hand, usually use industrial versions that work with electricity. The more sophisticated machines even offer different options regarding the size and texture of the ice flakes.
For either machine, water is frozen in a specific container to create a big block of ice. The frozen chunk is then placed in the machine where a sharp blade scrapes off thin flakes. The shaved ice falls right into a cup underneath the machine, ready to be covered with the desired toppings.
While this sounds like a piece of cake, there are a few things to consider in order to make the perfect Kakigōri. It is important to produce flakes of the right size so that the syrup can properly stick to it. Also the amount of fruit sauce or puree needs careful dosing without drowning or melting the ice. At the same time, it should be enough to give the otherwise plain, tasteless ice a proper flavor.
Here’s All You Need
From Rich People’s Treat To Pinterest Pleaser
Despite being extremely instagrammable or Pinterest-ready, Kakigōri is not a new invention to lure in Millennials. Of course, social media did help the shaved ice’s popularity spreading across the globe. However, the crunchy dessert actually already dates back to the 11th century – some sources even suggest the 8th century. During those days, though, it was merely the Japanese aristocracy that had the pleasure due to ice being a rare commodity in warm months. Only in the 19th century, when ice became more widely accessible during summertime to common people, Kakigōri gained its mass appeal and advanced to be one of Japan’s most popular sweets. In fact, so popular that it even had it’s very own dedicated glassware. The Japanese would eat Kakigōri from a so-called Kōrikoppu. Unfortunately, the little bowl widely disappeared after WWII.
A special type of Kakigōri goes by the name of Shirokuma which literally translates to “white bear”. While it also consists of the standard Kakigōri ingredients, Shirokuma comes with additional toppings such as colorful mochi, sweet Azuki bean paste and fruits. Mandarins, cherries, pineapples and raisins are amongst the most common. The colorful dessert which has been around since the 1700s bears a certain resemblance with a Filipino treat known as Halo-halo. And the similarity is not a coincidence. In fact, Japanese migrants brought Kakigōri with them to the Philippines before the war. Using the shaved ice from Japan as a base, Filipinos added more and more local ingredients over time and thereby created the popular Halo-halo of today.
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Baobing from China
Patbingsu from Korea
Halo-halo from the Philippines
Es Campur from Indonesia
Es Teler from Indonesia
Ais Kacang (ABC) from Malaysia
Grattachecca from Italy
Hawaiian Shave Ice from USA
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Raspado from Latin America
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