As the rainy season comes to an end, and Japan enters the height of it’s hot and humid summer, one dessert with a surprisingly long history comes to the cultural forefront. Kakigori, or Japanese shaved ice, can be found all over the place. Available from specialty shops, family restaurants, food carts on the sides of roads, and even from hand cranked machines kept in people’s homes, this frozen sweet treat is the perfect cooling companion for those hot and sticky days.
Kakigori has been enjoyed in Japan for over a thousand years. The first written record of kakigori was made in The Pillow Book, a collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, and complaints written by Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting in the Imperial Court during the Heian Period. At the time of Shonagon's writing, kakigori was shaved into a large bowl with a knife and topped with sap from hydrangea and ivy, along with a type of golden syrup popular at the time. Because ice preservation in that era was so difficult, kakigori was an extremely precious dessert that only the very wealthy and aristocratic could afford. For that reason, kakigori was for the most part only consumed by members of the Imperial Court until methods of ice creation and storage advanced in the 19th century. Advances in ice storage, along with the successful transportation of ice from Hokkaido to mainland Japan, led to ice being much more widely accessible to the public during the summer and the first designated kakigori shop is said to have opened in Yokohama in 1869.
Unlike American ice based desserts such as water ice, which are made from water that has already been flavored prior to freezing, kakigori begins as a block of pure untouched ice. The ice for kakigori is often made with water collected from designated springs and frozen carefully for utmost purity. The ice block is then placed in a special machine equipped with a spinning blade that shaves off thin pieces of ice into a wide, shallow bowl underneath. The resulting ice texture is light, fluffy, and remarkably similar to snow. The plain ice is then topped with a wide variety of syrups, fruits, and other toppings including sweetened condensed milk, mochi balls, chewy jellies, and red bean paste. One of the most popular, and also most traditional kakigori flavors is called ujikintoki and it is topped with matcha syrup, red bean paste, and mochi balls. Other popular flavors include melon (made with chunks of cantaloupe), strawberry, and Calpico, which is made using a concentrated syrup of the popular drink.
While a full-size, industrial electric kakigori machine can be quite expensive, small hand-cranked versions are a common occurrence in Japanese households. Home kakigori makers are often decorated to look like popular characters, such as Hello Kitty or Doraemon, and pre-made kakigori syrups are widely available from grocery and convenience stores during the summer. In addition to home kakigori makers being fairly ubiquitous, kakigori shops remain popular dessert spots in Japan. Today’s kakigori shops often focus on using the highest quality ice and best handling techniques to create the perfect kakigori.
Kakigori is a Japanese tradition as enduring as it is delicious-- one that has been enjoyed for generations leading up to the present and will continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.