The Wonders of Ancient Shio Koji


It just might be that the next Big Thing in cooking will be an ingredient that is uncommon here in the U.S. (for now) but that the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans have known about for a long time. Shio koji is a flavor enhancer, poised to become a wonder seasoning that happens to look like gruel, more like congee actually. You could think of shio koji as a substitute for salt in many applications, but a ‘salt’ with very special properties because of two enzymes that break down protein and starch to bring out food’s natural umami and sweetness.

Here, some chefs have been experimenting with it. Enthusiasm seems to be the universal reaction. One associated with America’s Test Kitchen has gotten the bug, incorporating shio koji into fried chicken and roast turkey recipes. As a menu item ingredient, the first time I had it (a better phrase is ‘aware of it’) was in shio koji chicken at Portland’s Chef Naoko Bento Café.

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Chef Naoko Tamura’s shio koji bento (2013)

Shio koji is a fermentation of rice koji, water and salt. Rice koji itself is an interesting oddity, made by inoculating malted rice with fungal spores, called koji kin, after which they MULTIPLY. “Wow, this looks terrific!” is not the first thought likely to come to mind when food is covered with mold. You’re more likely to dump it.

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Koji growth on steamed rice for sake (image from sakesaru.blogspot.com)

The thing is that koji kin, or simply koji, is essential to making miso, sake, mirin, shochu, makgeolli, rice vinegar and soy sauce. Watch the excellent documentary The Birth of Sake on Netflix to see how the sake master sprinkles koji on steamed rice. Without the mold, much of Japanese food as we know it would not exist, which makes it all the more remarkable that something that appears so unappetizing was exploited at all to make these cornerstones of Japanese cooking.

Shio koji became the rage in Japan only a few years ago. According to Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of Japanese Farm Food and (most recently) Preserving the Japanese Way, shio koji might not be so popular today had it not been for Myoho Asari (aka The Kojiya Woman), who came across a mention of it in an old Edo-period food anthology and subsequently blogged about it and experimented with it. It isn’t so easy to find in the U.S. That may change in the future. I was able to get it at a Seattle-area Asian supermarket—raw (nama) shio koji made in Oregon by Jōrinji, which also makes traditional unpasteurized miso.

Jorinji brand nama shio koji (image from jorinjisoybeam.com)

Jorinji brand nama shio koji (image from jorinjisoybeam.com)

In my own cooking, I’ve been doing some experimenting. My introduction started out with a fantastic internet recipe for baked shio koji chicken. Baby carrots tossed with it before roasting had wonderful depth. My favorite tuna salad benefited from using shio koji instead of salt and nutritional yeast. When local berry season arrives, I’ll play around with making jams that require much less sugar. I’ll use it in stews, stir frys and dressings. The possibilities are endless.

I suspect that shio koji will be appearing in menu descriptions as time goes on. You can bet that it’s already being used as a ‘secret’ ingredient. So now, to the cook’s arsenal of other umami-boosters (soy sauce, mushrooms, tomato paste, kelp, Marmite, nutritional yeast, Worcestershire sauce, MSG, etc.) can be added a by-product of a mold that looks as ancient as time itself.

In Princi(ple), Starbucks Adds Food to the Menu


Back in 2005, after a long flight to Milan and a late train to our hotel from Malpensa, all we could do after check-in (it was around 11pm) was to try to get some shut-eye. Try, as you can imagine, because our biological clocks were off-kilter.

The next morning, we headed out for breakfast. The night before, we walked past a bakery/café with a beautiful display of baked items. It was only a few doors away from our hotel on Via Speronari, so it was a logical choice to have our very first meal in Italy, breakfast at Princi. Rather than something sweet, we ordered savory focaccias that were cut up into little rectangles, and our beverages (espresso, cappuccino). Like the Italian customers, we had our breakfast standing up at the counter. Little did we know that many years later this café, now one of five in Milan and one in London, would capture the imagination of Howard Schultz, enough for Starbucks to enter into a business partnership with Rocco Princi to provide in-house food service at Starbucks Roastery stores and Reserve coffee shops, so reported the Seattle Times.

Rocco, I love your stuff.

Grazie, Howard.

Ever think of expanding the business outside of Milan? You know, go world-wide? Kinda like my vast empire.

No offense, Howard, but my business model is different. We make things from scratch, use organic ingredients, control the entire operation from beginning to end. We strive for top quality, whatever it takes. Our operation isn’t scalable like yours.

Rocco, you gotta be kiddin’ me. Think big. Maybe cut a few corners here and there. If the pizzas get a little burnt, bitter maybe, no one’s gonna care. Give it a catchy name like full città arrosto.

Not gonna happen, Howard.

Rocco, Rocco. People respect your name, and they’ll pay.

It’s a matter of principle.

Did I mention that Starbucks would provide you with the space and equipment? You’ll make a mint.

How much are we talking about?

This dialog didn’t ACTUALLY take place. It’s more an alternative conversation. So, what’s really happening here? Starbucks gets exclusive rights to open Princi outlets all over the world, both in its high-end stores and as standalone entities. Since its inception in 1986, Princi has opened six stores (including one in London), clearly in keeping with a strategy of careful growth. Starbucks has over 20,000 stores. Its customers will recall that, in response to criticisms of inferior pastries (my daughter being one of them), Starbucks in 2012 bought La Boulange of San Francisco, which had quite a Bay Area following. While their pastries will continue to be sold at Starbucks, all 23 brick-and-mortar La Boulange stores were unceremoniously shuttered in 2015. They “weren’t sustainable for the company’s long-term growth.” A cautionary tale for Rocco Princi is in there somewhere.

To be clear, food service is going to be provided only at Starbucks’ special stores. Exactly what will be served is up in the air now, though pizza and focaccia are surely slated. The first to get a Princi will be Seattle’s own Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, perhaps in the summer.

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Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room, Seattle

Current tenant Serious Pie, operated by local superstar restauranteur Tom Douglas, will be replaced by Princi, an agreement reached amicably.

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Princi will take over Serious Pie’s place

I’ll be one of the first to find out how Princi handles the transition, but the feeling of café intimacy I got in Milan surely will not be part of the experience.