|No amount of Photoshop can mask the ick-factor of raw shio-koji. Via.|
Raw koji looks grotesque and has an odor of vaguely “sweet smelling socks”, according to the Los Angeles Times. Despite its superficial unpleasantness, the taste and usefulness surprises and delights.
What is koji exactly? It is a mold (Aspergillus oryzae, Japan’s national fungus), which is used to ferment rice to create items such as miso, sake, soy sauce, mirin, shōchū, and rice vinegar--all staples of Japanese cuisine.
These items come from kome koji (literally “rice koji”), in which the rice starches are broken down into sugar (a process known as saccharification), releasing fatty and amino acids.
Adding sea salt (shio) or soy sauce (shoyu) to the mix before alcohol begins to form creates what the LA Times calls a “miracle condiment”. Shio- and shoyu-koji are used to bring out the natural salt flavor in food without using as much salt, while keeping a hint of sweetness from the sugar within. The result is pure umami--a burst of savory, sweet deliciousness in every bite.
The health benefits of koji are numerous and the taste that accompanies it is an even bigger bonus. It can be used as a marinade for meats, fishes, and vegetables and also a total replacement for salt. Easy to make while enhancing the natural umami flavor, it’s no wonder that koji is now making its way into global pantries, especially in the United States.
While the koji demonstration and tasting at Japan Society tonight is sold out, there are many simple and delicious ways to use koji at home. Chopsticks New York has a handy instructional on how to make shio-koji, and the San Francisco Chronicle recently ran several shio-koji recipes, including Sauteed Lemon-Koji Asparagus, Grilled Koji-Marinated Hokkaido Squid With Ponzu Mayonnaise, and Koji Shira-ae With Favas and Tomatoes.