It’s getting humid in Tokyo and soon it will also be brutally hot. The romantic ideal of summer is sitting on tatami mats dressed in colorful cotton yukata nibbling salted watermelon while delicately waving a handheld paper fan. The only cold refreshment needed is a nice crisp glass of iced barley tea, if the cooling sounds of wind-chimes and soft rain aren’t enough…sort of like this lovely scene from my Yoritsuki ipad app.
The reality of summer is more like sweaty salarymen dressed in polyester summer suits that are still too hot for the weather crammed into crowded trains mopping their mottled faces with pocket handkerchiefs. There isn’t enough space to breathe, let alone wave a paper fan. A few lousy pieces of watermelon, even chilled, can’t erase the pain of the daily summer commute. That’s where another cooling summer treat, flavored shaved ice mountains large and small called かき氷 (kakigori) comes into play.
A snow cone? Big deal, you think. At least, that’s what I used to think.
But this, this, is not your grossly sweet, tooth-cracking neon rainbow fireman’s carnival snow cone, friend. This is a work of art, as light and fluffy as cotton candy, as snowy as Mount Fuji, and at its core as showy as the most elaborate winter flambé. This is a heavenly respite from humidity in a shallow earthen dish or a cheap plastic cup…both luxury and lowbrow versions can be found for a limited time during the peak of summer. But, until yesterday I had never actually tried this yummy dessert for myself.
Perhaps invented as long ago as the 11th century, popular enough then to get a shout out in The Pillow Book, kakigori has been around the block. It is as developed and refined as any other category of 和菓子 (wagashi), traditional Japanese sweets. The most popular flavor might be green tea, or 黒砂糖 (black sugar), maybe yuzu, a bright native citrus fruit. More modern and sugary flavors like strawberry and condensed milk, or tropical fruit punch are also served especially on cheaper versions. Higher end kakigori hide delicious surprises deep inside their mountainous proportions, you can excavate sweet treasures like 白玉 (shirotama, a soft white ball of sweet chewy rice starch) or 粒餡 (tsubuan, whole red beans boiled with sugar but otherwise untreated) before the ice mountain melts into a pool of lightly sweet flavored syrup.
I used to scoff at this treat. Why pay good money for a snow cone, I know what they are like! (Kakigori is nothing remotely like a snow cone.) I usually went for more complicated flamboyant desserts like あんみつ (anmitsu, a sundae type confection made from agar agar and various toppings.)
Or my ultimate favorite treat, a decadent Kyoto-style ice cream parfait! This is everything AND the kitchen sink, perfect for those moments when you’re not sure if you want cake, ice cream, mochi, mousse, or what!
But being five months pregnant and having three long months of summer ahead with strict orders to limit my weight gain to only 10 kilos total, this year my loyalty lies with kakigori, after all it is mostly water, right?