How Kakigori, The Sweet Japanese Shaved Ice, Quietly Took Over LA
Kakigori has two great enemies — time and temperature. "It's such a time-sensitive and temperature-sensitive dessert that if you are far away and just happened to step away, it's not going to be the same dessert that it was 10 minutes ago," says pastry chef Laura Hoang, who makes the kakigori at Pearl River Deli in Chinatown.
The Japanese dessert made of light, fluffy shaved ice sweetened with syrups and topped with luscious cream is especially popular during warmer months. Originally enjoyed by elites, the dish has a history stretching back more than a thousand years. It was mentioned in The Pillow Book, written in the 9th century by Sei Shonagon, a court lady during the Heian period. Early versions used crushed plums and honey. In the late 1800s, ice harvesting became available in Japan and, in 1872, the first kakigori shop opened, in Yokohama.
In Los Angeles, the dessert remains something of a rarity. This June, whispers of local kakigori pop-ups started appearing on Instagram, tempting us with icy visions of the ephemeral treat. What was behind this sudden surge? In this case, you can trace most of it back to one man — Naoto Yonezawa.
A creative marketer whose true passion is sharing Japanese culture with the rest of the world, Yonezawa, 35, spent 13 years working for a Japanese food and drink distributor before joining the world of high-end ice. In 2018, he took on a new role, establishing the American arm of Kuramoto Ice, a Japanese company that has been around since 1923. Based in Kanazawa, it's known for ulta-clear, slow-melting ice achieved by constant agitation and the slow freezing of water over a longer period of time. According to Kuramoto, the process prevents impurities.
Yonezawa, a cocktail aficionado, was disappointed with the ice he had tried in the United States. "The drinking culture is different here," Yonezawa says. Initially, he focused on trying to sell ice to bars but when the COVID-19 pandemic closed most watering holes, he had to rethink his plans.
Yonezawa decided the best way to showcase Kuramoto's ice was kakigori. But not just any kakigori. He wanted kakigori that reflected the dish's transformation during the previous decade.
In Japan, kakigori has evolved from a simple shaved ice treat relying on artificially-flavored and colored syrups to an artisan treat made with ingredients such as Oishii Strawberries, top-shelf chocolate and yuzu cheesecake. Sometimes, it's modeled after popular desserts like the Mont Blanc, a confection of sugar and pureed chestnuts.
"I'm not really trying to sell to [just] Japanese restaurants because if I try to promote kakigori to Japanese restaurants, they think of 20-year-old kakigori using commercially made syrups. Instead I'm trying to start from scratch in the U.S.," Yonezawa says.
When Yonezawa pitched the concept to Japanese restaurants in L.A., they were resistant. They wanted to keep costs down by using cheap ice and syrups. Yonezawa's kakigori project is both an exercise in justifying the cost of ice flown from Japan and a way to give curious diners a modern kakigori experience. Putting bottled syrups on Kuramoto's ice would be like dousing a wagyu steak with ketchup. So Yonezawa sought out chefs, figuring they'd get creative with the ingredients and come up with wild flavor combos.
He held his first pop-up in April 2021 at Suzuya Patisserie Las Vegas. People were captivated by the fluffy shaved ice featuring matcha with red beans.
Kakigori isn't impossible to find in Southern California. High-end restaurants Majordomo and Nobu have been offering it for a few years. But Yonezawa's pop-ups demonstrated a broader hunger for the dish and an untapped curiosity about its origins. They were also an effort in food diplomacy. Yonezawa compares kakigori to another Japanese dish that has boomed in the U.S. in the last decade.
"Japanese kakigori is very unique in texture. I think the current rave comes mainly from [its appearance] and Instagram posts [but there's] still a long way to go to make people aware of a true kakigori experience. Like ramen 10 years ago, people knew how it looked but most of them didn't know what real good ramen tasted like," Yonezawa says.
Since May, Yonezawa has set up at least half-a-dozen kakigori pop-ups in and around L.A. — at Anajak Thai, Wanderlust Creamery, Yojimbo and Champions. At Anajak, in Sherman Oaks, Yonezawa worked with chef Justin Pichetrungsi to develop a mango sticky rice kakigori featuring salty coconut cream and sweet mango puree. People stood in line for up to two hours to get their hands on one.
"I want people to have a legitimate kakigori experience. I have tried so many poor versions that disappoint people, so I want restaurant and business owners to start serving real modern kakigori," Yonezawa says.
You can also find kakigori year-round at Chinatown's Katsu Sando, known for its phenomenal katsu sandwiches, onigiri and curry plates. Chef and owner Daniel Son lived and worked in Japan where he fell in love with yoshoku (Western food) and conbinis, Japanese convenience stores known for selling excellent food and snacks.
"It's the sort of the blue collar food and the soul food that your mom and dad would make at home," Son says.
Katsu Sando's menu already pays homage to comfort fare so kakigori was the perfect addition. Son was impressed by Yonezawa’s ice demo and decided to pull the trigger. He purchased the Swan electric ice shaving machine from Kuramoto and each week he orders 60 pounds of ice from the company. He jokingly calls their ice "The Tesseract."
Katsu Sando's first kakigori, served July 2021, was a mound of soft ice covered in watermelon syrup and lime-infused cream sitting on a bed of watermelon balls and served in a small, hollowed-out watermelon. It was subtle, sweet and creamy, making it an ideal way to cool down in the oppressive summer heat.
For his next iteration, Son was inspired by his Korean heritage and a childhood spent consuming Binggrae banana milk and donuts. He used fresh banana milk syrup and banana pudding layered through ribbons of ice and topped with toasted meringue, bruleed bananas and pieces of pie crust in a thorny crown to create a banana milk creme pie kakigori.
"I think what gets us excited is trying to sort of recreate or re-imagine things that we grew up with, sort of that Ratatouille moment [where] nostalgia and the olfactory senses hit and they bring you to a memory," Son says.
It's a kakigori full of intention. The banana pudding is as good as anything you'd find at a top soul food joint and the bruleed bananas have a glassy sugar layer. But the real fun is feeling the crunch of sugar crystals as you bite into the torched meringue.
Katsu Sando's most recent version, a fig and ricotta kakigori, features fluffy ice coated with a dark brown fig and port wine syrup, topped with a generous serving of whipped homemade ricotta, drizzled with an aged balsamic glaze and finished with bruleed figs. The word unconventional doesn't begin to describe it.
At nearby PRD, a modern Cantonese and pan-Asian restaurant, chef Johnny Lee had toyed for years with adding kakigori to the menu. In 2021, he took the plunge and bought an ice shaving machine.
He enlisted the help of pastry chef Hoang to collaborate on kakigori recipes. She worked for almost a decade in professional kitchens and, in 2020, she started her own home bakery. After the death of George Floyd, Hoang started baking to raise funds for Black Lives Matter. In addition to PRD, you can find her pastries at Thank You Coffee and the pop-up Quarantine Pizza Co.
Lee and Hoang developed eight kakigori flavors for PRD, from mango peach to Hong Kong milk tea. It's not an easy dish to get right.
One of the tricks of kakigori is learning how to temper the ice. Yonezawa stresses the importance of letting the block of ice sit at room temperature before you shave it. During the R&D phase, Hoang also learned she had to factor in the temperature outside and in the kitchen as well as how long it takes people to eat.
"Figuring out the process has been its own journey. The ice is really precious. I wanted to respect and honor it. What is the ideal temperature for this block of ice to be at for optimal shaving? [This] is something that I just didn't know. I really had to consider for the first couple of weeks before we went live with it," Hoang says.
Hoang and Lee's first kakigori collab featured mango, peach and cool coconut cream. It was a blizzard of tart and sweet fruit with smooth cream coating a mountain of soft ice. Their follow-up used pluots, whipped cream and brown bread ice cream from Scoops. For the Hong Kong Milk Tea kakigori, Hoang and Lee wanted to pay tribute to the shaved ice at okonomiyaki specialist Chinchikurin. They layered snowy ice with cream cheese foam, sweetened it with Hong Kong Milk Tea syrup, topped it with more foam and drizzled on a brown sugar syrup.
"There's a lot of small nuances to it but at the same time, it's shaved ice with syrup. We're working with real fruit purees but still trying to maintain that level of flavor that's really associative," Hoang says.
In mid-September, PRD offered a two-week run of Hawaiian food and a limited edition lilikoi strawberry kakigori featuring bright yellow passion fruit syrup, sliced strawberries and condensed milk. It was a hit. Despite the success, Lee has decided to take a break from making kakigori. The current location of PRD, in the Far East Plaza, will close at the end of October while he prepares to open a new, larger location in Chinatown. When it opens, hopefully in early 2022, Lee and Hoang plan to, once again, serve kakigori.
Like so many dishes, kakigori is a blank slate where chefs can run wild. Here in Los Angeles, we've only started sampling its possibilities. As for Kuramoto Ice's agenda to get kakigori on the map (and sell more luxury ice)? "I'm here for it," Hoang says.
Son adds, "It's great that the word kakigori is becoming a lot more familiar, and I think that's the goal for all of us."