Introducing Your Guide to Kakigori

by Emi Noguchi

What Does Kakigori Mean?

Ah, kakigori, Japanese shaved ice of many colors. So, what is it, exactly? In a nutshell: this Japanese summer treat is a little mountain of fine shave ice light as fresh snow, topped with flavored syrup, and sweetened with condensed milk. In this post, we’ll touch on the Kakigori origin story, some of its Asian shaved ice dessert brethren, and some of the different flavors kakigori comes in today.

The History of Kakigori

One thousand years ago, a lady-in-waiting named Sei Shonagon wrote in her seminal text The Pillow Book some short notes on “Refined and Elegant Things.” Included in that list is the world’s first written mention of kakigori: “shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.” A refined and elegant thing, indeed! The true kakigori origin story is undocumented, but at the time Shonagon was writing, and for many centuries to follow, Japanese shaved ice was an extravagance. Long before railways would quickly transport perishable goods, long before electric refrigeration, one began to make kakigori when winter temperatures dropped below freezing. Blocks of naturally-formed ice were extracted from their water sources and transported to courtly ice chambers. There, the ice would wait until the summer months for optimal enjoyment.

Once home refrigeration became commonplace, it became quite ordinary to see kakigori machines in houses. Though few families are making their own today, Japanese shaved ice is everywhere in the summer, from specialty shops and festival stands to convenience stores, restaurants, and even the odd neighborhood garage. Wherever you find it, true Japanese shaved ice prizes texture (think fresh-fallen snow) and flavor. The sweet, mild stems and leaves of the liana may have produced sweet satisfaction in the 1000s, but about seven hundred years later, the Japanese palate was beginning to change, thanks to the import of Westernized sugar.

What's The Difference Between Kakigori, Bingsoo, and Halo-Halo?

Bingsoo, or bingsu, uses frozen milk in place of water, but the basic formula remains the same: shaved frozen treat with toppings. Once exclusively a red bean paste dessert, bingsoo today might include fruit jelly or cookies. Check out your local K-Town to see what creations local chefs have dreamed up! Halo-halo, also a shaved ice treat, hails from the Philippines. Like many sweets there, it is available in delicious, saturated purple if ordered with jelly made from ube, a sweet purple yam. Though halo-halo is said to have originated with kakigori, it comes in an astounding variety of different flavors which kakigori does not offer. Halo-halo comes with sweet beans, but it also comes in pineapple, coconut, and jackfruit. Unlike classic kakigori, halo-halo is a complex layering of fruit, jellies, condensed and/or coconut milk, syrup, and ice. It’s beautiful and delicious. As the French say, it is parfait

May we recommend some kakigori flavors?

For anyone without summer travel plans to hot, humid Japan, you’re in luck! In cities across the United States, the kakigurious have plenty of options. Hawaii has its own robust and long-standing kakigori traditions thanks to a large Japanese population. In recent years, kakigori has crossed over to the continental US, too. Of all the different flavors kakigori purveyors offer today, beloved standbys are typically either fruit-based or involve ingredients like matcha syrup or sweet red beans. Condensed milk gives the dish a silky richness, its thickness offset by quickly-melting ice.

Certain different flavors of Kakigori can run up quite a tab, primarily expensive imported fruits like mangos. International tourists visiting temples in Kyoto, however, will find large and elaborate concoctions with ingredients typical of more traditional Japanese sweets.

Take the city of Uji for example: the birthplace of matcha. Here, the summer visitor can choose between meal-sized variations of kakigori that more closely resemble halo-halo. One serving might include a deliciously dark matcha syrup and condensed milk, topped with anko (sweet red bean), ice cream, eye-catching hard jellies, and even some small mochi! If a trip to Japan is not in the cards this summer, fear not. Discover our monthly Japanese snack box subscription that delivers authentic snacks from Japan straight to your door. You’ll definitely find mochi and ichigo strawberry pairings that go well with your summer snacks.

How To Make Kakigori

The texture of kakigori ice is generally non-negotiable. It must be shaved perfectly: not so fine that it will deflate or melt too quickly, but not so thick that it will harden as it melts. This raises some problems for the at-home kakigori chef.

The “crush” setting on a nice blender or stand mixer “ice attachment” makes quick work of a bowl of ice. If you lack the equipment and feel bold, you can go the way of the mallet: place a large sealed bag of water flat in the freezer to make a kind of “pillow” shape. This makes it easier to crush using a mallet or rolling pin.

Place a dish towel over the bag before you begin to avoid unnecessary melting and prevent ice chips from flying! Because the crushing action and the temperature of the room will heat up the ice, you might consider returning your ice to the freezer after a round of smashing so that it has a chance to re-freeze into the little chips and flakes you’ve just made. Remove from the freezer and, depending on your results, crush again and fluff with a fork! Since you may not have perfect shaved ice, want to lean on your toppings. We recommend going green tea, all the way!

Condensed milk or sweetened coconut milk are a breeze to find. Our goal is a variety of textures and degrees of sweetness. Add in a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. We *definitely* recommend Okinawa brown sugar syrup: it dissolves quickly in cold beverages (or in this case, icy extravagances). This syrup also contains a surprising number of health benefits, like calcium, iron, and potassium. Include tapioca pearls from an instant boba tea as your jelly, and you’ve got a full-on Kyoto tourist-style matcha kakigori parfait. Layer with care and take your photo quickly, before everything melts! 

How Do You Eat Kakigori?

If you’re eating something similar to the kakigori origin point—a shaved ice and syrup—simply use a small spoon and savor. We’re of the mind that you should enjoy your food however you like it! If you decide to go the parfait route, you can mix it up, or go one ingredient at a time. Use a spoon, boba straw, or some combination. Whatever you do, just make sure you finish before it melts!

Kakigori is a great snack for the summer heat! Here are Japan's best summertime sweets.

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Author Bio

Emi Noguchi is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelance writing instructor, and co-founder of MFA App Review. After studying standard Japanese at Columbia University, she picked up Kansai-ben while living in Osaka and some Awa-ben in her paternal hometown in Tokushima. Emi is a 2020 recipient of the John Weston Award and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. You can read her work in Essay Daily, The Spectacle, and Fairy Tale Review. Emi is currently writing a novel about diasporic illnesses, art-making, and traditional Japanese puppetry.