Kojicon shines the spotlight on a staple of Japanese cooking
To declare any sort of culinary boom is an uncertain, if not futile, task. This is especially true for Japanese cuisine, which has dishes, ingredients and cooking methods that have so seamlessly entered international culinary traditions that Japanese foods are in a state of perpetual “boom” around the world. Ramen, for instance, has been “booming” globally for nearly two decades.
But, at times, there is a trend that deserves the title of “boom” — or at least a mention of its burgeoning popularity on the global stage. And right now, that is kōji.
Otherwise known as Aspergillus oryzae, kōji is a mold used in culinary traditions in Korea, China and Japan, where it is the fundamental ingredient of such staples as sake, soy sauce and miso. However, as Jeremy Umansky and Rich Shih write in “Koji Alchemy,” a book published in May 2020, “Functionally, kōji is not tied to Japanese or any other Asian cuisine that uses it.” And while many chefs outside of Japan have taken to the mystifying or, as Sandor Elliz Katz writes in the book’s forward, “transformative powers” of kōji in previous decades, the product has made an unprecedented leap into home kitchens and menus across the world in recent years.
During the pandemic, self-isolating cooks have experimented with methods of home fermentation, including kōji, and a growing community of kōji lovers has begun to take shape. It is centered around #kojibuildscommunity, a hashtag created by Shih with almost 20,000 posts on Instagram at the time of this article’s publication.
And now, inspired by the hashtag, there is Kojicon 2022: Changing Food For Good. Running through March 6, the Connecticut-based nonprofit The Yellow Farmhouse Education Center will bring kōji experts and enthusiasts together from across the world for two weeks of talks and events to “virtually share their passion for mold-based fermentation.”
In the winter of 2021, the center held the first Kojicon, attended by 700 individuals from 39 countries. This year, in collaboration with the writers of “Koji Alchemy,” the event will bring together speakers such as Sean Doherty, Marika Groen, Bob Florence, Yong Ha and Takashi Sato. They will focus on a range of topics, including creating small batch ferments, implications that fermentation can have on food waste and food pathways, and culinary use of ferments in different cultures.
The popularity of kōji may also be a sign of something else — greater complexity and nuance in the global consumption of Japanese cuisine. It’s no longer ramen and sushi that capture the imagination of foodies, mold is here to stay.
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