Even in the last days of this particularly dreary New York winter, the dish that seems to be on every table at Manhattan’s Lobster Club is a towering ice sculpture designed by pastry chef Stephanie Prida. The four-tiered dessert is painted with vanilla pastry cream and blood-orange syrup before being topped with a single wheel of candied blood-orange. Imagine the most elegant Creamsicle you’ve ever had, simultaneously rich like ice cream, as refreshing as sorbet, and as satisfyingly melty as Dairy Queen soft serve.
The dessert is kakigori, a traditional Japanese shaved-ice specialty that has quickly become the dessert of choice at some of America’s most high-profile restaurants, and continues to grow in popularity. In its home country, however, kakigori has been popular for literal centuries: The idea dates back to the 11th century, when frozen blocks of ice from lakes would be preserved in the winter, only to be finely shaved and served with sweet syrup to Japan’s elite class in the summers. In the 19th century, when ice became more widely available, the public was able to try it, and now — thanks to electric refrigeration — kakigori is ubiquitous during warmer months.
In fact, sweetened ice is popular all over the world. What sets kakigori apart is its distinctively thin sheets of ice, homemade syrups and toppings, and the layerlike assemblage. “All of these Asian varieties of shaved ice are good, but the Japanese have taken it to another level,” says David Chang. He grew up eating Korean patbingsu — which has a snowball-like texture and is topped with red beans as well as fruit or condensed milk— but he decided to serve kakigori at his new L.A. restaurant, Majordomo. “Kakigori is more refined,” Chang says. “And you can eat a lot of it.”
Another aspect that makes kakigori appealing to highly trained pastry chefs is the skill that’s required to make it properly. In Japan, kakigori is a craft unto itself, with masters who have spent decades perfecting their versions of the dessert, which lives or dies by the texture of the ice and the quality of the toppings. Every part of the process is time-intensive: Many shops in Japan source water from the country’s natural springs. The actual ice is also carefully tempered to make the texture more ideal for shaving, which is performed on specialized hand-cranked machines that slice the ice in layers, like some kind of giant, ancient ice mandoline. And, it goes without saying, the syrups and toppings are all made by hand, with the finest available ingredients.
Theo Friedman runs the Bonsai Kakigori stall with his partner, Gaston Becherano. Friedman recalled Becherano telling him about visiting one Tokyo shop run by a kakigori master: “He was waiting in line, and a guy who worked there came outside, so he started asking him questions.” But just as a sushi apprentice will spend years perfecting rice before they’re ever allowed to touch a master’s fish, Becherano learned that kakigori apprentices must work their way up the ladder. “He ended up telling him, ‘I have never made a kakigori. I am still just freezing the ice.’”
“There is an artisanal element to kakigori,” says Eddie Zheng. He runs the New York dessert shop the Little One with his partner, Olivia Leung. “Every single component has to be made from scratch, so there’s a real appeal there.” The shop’s kakigori selection rotates, but they’ve recently featured bittersweet grapefruit kakigori that includes grapefruit syrup, honey-yogurt panna cotta, flower-shaped grapefruit gelée, brûléed grapefruit segments, and fresh tarragon.
Leung previously worked for New York pastry chef Dominique Ansel, and the dessert — with its many complex components, layered flavors, and balanced composition — is clearly influenced by Ansel’s style. And, like many of Ansel’s creations, it’s impossible not to notice that brightly colored kakigori looks good on an Instagram feed, but the operators are all adamant that social-media engagement is not the goal. “It’s about balance of flavors, and balance of textures,” Friedman explains. “We’re not looking to be on the same feed as a cheeseburger pizza.”
In America, of course, many of the chefs making kakigori didn’t grow up in Japan, and only discovered the dessert on visits to the country. As such, Stateside varieties are not always the result of decades of training, or even a desire to deliver an authentic version; instead, they represent a combination of the basic tenets of the kakigori craft and the chefs’ backgrounds. (Kakigori has also been served at more traditional Japanese restaurants in America, such as Cha-An and Cocoron in New York.)
At Bonsai Kakigori, Becherano pulls from his Mexican background in a version made with cajeta, a Mexican goat’s-milk caramel, plus malted peanuts and sea salt. And Katsuya Fukuyama, a Japanese-American chef who serves kakigori at his Washington, D.C., ramen shop, Haikan, during the summer, is working on a version inspired by the tricolor Neapolitan ice cream, a favorite treat from his childhood in Hawaii. The kakigori will have three sections, each drizzled with vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate syrup, with the ice cream itself buried at the bottom.
Despite its popularity, kakigori is also labor-intensive, and Fukuyama believes it is unlikely to go the way of Thai rolled ice cream — with hundreds of quick-service versions saturating cities. “It is like going to a fine-dining sushi restaurant where there is only one sushi master there,” he says. “They can only make one kakigori at a time, and they have to construct it layer by layer. I’ve waited 30 minutes for kakigori.” Still, despite the work that must go into it, the best kakigori experiences are defined by the dessert’s very basic pleasures. “You know when you’re out in Vermont or Maine and you grab some really nice fallen snow and drizzle maple syrup on it?” Fukuyama says. “That’s what eating kakigori is like. Simple and beautiful.”