The miracle condiment
An ancient food makes a comeback with this Japanese staple. Discover the true meaning of umami!
Just as yeast is the pillar of Western cuisine and the fungus that’s responsible for the production of bread, cheese and beer, koji is the mainstay for Japanese cuisine. Koji, or rice malt, has long been an important part of Japanese cooking, acting as a building block of almost all essential pantry items, such as miso, soy sauce and even sake.
Up until around a hundred years ago, there were artisanal koji makers in almost every community, but now with the convenience of grocery store miso and soy sauce, most people opt to skip the process of fermenting their own foods. Crafted koji makers and their businesses were dwindling towards the brink of extinction until 2007, when Myoho Asari, a ninth-generation koji maker from southern Japan, made a game-changing discovery.
In a desperate search for a way to revive the dying koji business, Asari combed through old documents from the Edo period (1603–1868) and came across the description of shio-koji. In a column in Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s five national newspapers, Asari said, “I’d never heard of ‘shio- koji’ before, but I was curious so I coated it on some fish and vegetables. The umami just melted in my mouth. It tasted like something a world-class chef would make.” From there, she began publishing recipes on her blog, proselytizing shio-koji’s many health benefits. Before she knew it, people were going wild for the condiment and it was flying off the shelves faster than it could be replenished.
Shio-koji has since become an essential pantry item in its own right and largely substitutes for salt in Japanese kitchens. The white sludgy substance is a living powerhouse of saltiness and umami, a savoury taste, but contains only half the sodium found in table salt. The koji breaks down proteins and produces the salts of glutamic acid while working to tenderize foods like meat and fish, which is why it makes such a great marinade. In addition to its low sodium content, shio-koji comes with a slew of other health benefits, such as lactic acid that improves the intestinal environment, antioxidants that aid digestion and promote better skin, and minerals, vitamins and fibre.
The probiotic seasoning can be used to add a terrific punch of taste in lieu of salt to almost any recipe, and it has an extraordinary ability to draw out the food’s natural flavours. It goes great with Japanese dishes like sashimi and grilled mackerel, but its versatility extends much further and into Western cuisines as well. Try adding a dash to your pasta sauce, or mix a tad into your salad dressing. It even works well with chocolate chip cookies and hamburgers.
Japanese grocery stores carry jars or tubes of shio- koji, but it’s also fairly easy to make yourself. All you have to do is add some koji to sea salt and water and mix it once a day for about a week at room temperature to have your very own homemade fungus.
Jazz up your koji
Salt isn’t the only thing you can mix with your koi! While shio-koji is still a popular choice, shoyu-koji, or koji mixed with soy sauce, is the latest trend.
- A condiment that is made by fermenting soybeans and wheat with koji bacteria, shoyu goes through another fermentation process to create shoyu-koji, deepening the flavours and creating a more complex profile.
- Shoyu-koji is hard to find in Canada, but the good news is that it’s simple to make. All you have to do is add soy sauce to koji and stir, then let it sit for one month.
- It’s delicious as a marinade for fish and meat, or you can use it to pickle your vegetables for a tasty side dish such as tsukemono.