It’s midsummer: clothing sticks, trains overflow, and children lick bowls of Mt.Everest. Or, as the locals term the mountainous treat, kakigori. Made by crushing ice and drenching it with a syrupy concotion, kakigoris abound in Tokyo during the summer, spotting shopping streets, playgrounds, and sometimes even bars. Kakigoris contain only two to three ingredients but boast hundreds of flavors; a simple dessert with several choices, it may become your favorite go-to treat after a tiring day.
The invention of the dessert remains obscure, lost somewhere between Amaterasu’s birth and the rise of the shogun. However, the first recorded mention of kakigori nests between the pages of The Pillow Book, a rare firsthand account of Heian court proceedings and life. Ice was a rare commodity at the time, so only the elite of the elite could munch the dessert during a humid Japanese summer, usually with honey or crushed plums. Kakigoris remained a privilege until the Meiji era, when food entrepreneur Kahe Nakagawa began importing ice from Hokkaido. The first kakigori shop was opened in 1872 in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Don’t confuse them with snow cones—kakigoris have fluffier consistency, and despite their simple recipe and childish appearance, they are usually eaten with a spoon. Sloppy eating is not allowed; note how empty kakigori bowls in the trash cans are clean of any syrup or speckles of ice, and how nobody seems to have a stained shirt. Fortunately, kakigori towers hold up fairly well, and they do not immediately start melting.
Although popular flavors include lemon, strawberry, pineapple, and green tea, some shops like to experiment to suit everyone’s tastes, including those who don’t like sweets. Want a healthy kakigori option? Try a fermented soybean flavor. Need to forget a hard day? A whiskey-flavored kakigori, at your service. Crave Korean food? Add dollops and dollops of red chili sauce to your ice.
In the end, kakigoris are all about enjoying summer and pushing the boundaries. If you like to mix flavors or want to try something new, purchase your own kakigori machine at your nearest department store. You can buy a small, cheap one at a 100 yen store…or if you’re feeling a bit fancy, one shaped like a polar bear for 10,000 yen. Your choice.
For more on summer treats, check out this article on Japanese street food.
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