Secret Ingredient: shio koji

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Big in Japan
About three weeks ago the Los Angeles Times ran a story about shio koji, or rice inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae, a benign mold that's been used for centuries in the production of miso, amazake, and sake—Japan's sake brewers have dubbed the spores a "national fungus."

About five years ago the matron of a 300-year-old koji manufacturer began experimenting with the stuff in a variety of recipes to boost the family's flagging business. Her promotional efforts led to a national craze, with chefs and home cooks using it for everything from marinating meat to pickling vegetables to spiking soups, pastas, baked goods, and salad dressings. There's even a manga character named after it. Hailed as "the new MSG," it's considered an umami booster, enhancing the flavors of whatever it's used with. Pretty much anything salt can do, koji can do better, say its boosters.

Its appearance in the LAT signals an ascendance on this side of the Pacific—David Chang is a fan and shio koji cooking classes have begun popping up on the coasts. Friend of the Food Chain chef Alan Lake recently scored a few 180-gram tubes at Mitsuwa, and bestowed one upon me. It has a granular, cream of wheat-like texture and a slightly funky, salty taste. You can clearly divine its relationship to miso. I've done a few things with it with varying degrees of success. The marinated head of cauliflower I roasted wasn't terribly distinctive, but the glazed slabs of escolar I broiled were fantastic, taking on a toasty char that deepened the flavor of this already meaty fish.

shio koji marinated escolar

The jury is still out on the giant batch of Louisiana-style hot sauce I'm fermenting with it in place of salt—if the mold doesn't kill me the capsaicin will. Lake, for his part, dressed some green beans with a mixture of shio koji and crushed black sesame seeds, forming the outer circle of the veggie and noodle mandala he assembled for last weekend's LTHForum picnic. This mildly salty and ever so slightly sweet application was the tastiest and prettiest I've had so far.

Jazzfood

Shio koji is $5.99 a tube at Mitsuwa, 100 E. Algonquin Rd., Arlington Heights, 847-956-6699

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