What Is Kakigori?

Where to try the city's fluffiest, freshest-tasting shaved ice

Various cultures around the world embrace shaved-ice desserts, but kakigorionce a luxury confection consumed by Japanese nobles during the 11th century—stands apart, thanks to its delicate, cotton candy-esque texture. And it's made its way to the Big Apple, where New York's operators are putting both simple and sophisticated spins on Japan's beloved summertime sweet, staining it in a rainbow of hues and creating flavors like matcha, melon and coconut-lime crunch.

"It is smooth and fluffy, just like fresh fallen snow," Naoya Okamura, pastry chef of the Shangri-La Hotel Tokyo, says of the dessert's unique texture. Okamura is responsible for all of the property's desserts, including kakigori in flavors like watermelon and mango.

And per NYC restaurateur Sakura Yagi (whose family commands 13 Japanese establishments in the East Village neighborhood), what separates kakigori from other shave-ice desserts is that it's made from "pure ice, not flavored ice." In most cases, it's a block of frozen mineral water that's shaved, then sweetened with seasonal fruits and tea syrups.

Yagi's intimate teahouse, Cha-An, was one of the first places to introduce kakigori to the city, almost 15 years ago. "Kakigori, like many things in Japanese cuisine, highlights pure ingredients," she continues, referencing the syrups and wagashi (Japanese confections) that are top the shave ice's layers as the flavoring. At Cha-An, Yagi serves matcha, strawberry with condensed milk, melon and peach-flavored snowfalls—common iterations one might encounter in Japan.

The Little One's matcha kakigori | Photo: The Little One NYC via Facebook

Though Cha-An was one of New York's original kakigori hawkers, recently a number of new vendors have arised. Since its debut last year on the Lower East Side, Japanese dessert shop The Little One has presented elevated takes like hojicha (roast green tea) kakigori, drizzled with a caramel sauce made from the tea leaves, along with lime zest. Meanwhile, the shop's matcha rendition include drifts of white chocolate foam atop a mountain of zippy green ice.   

Bonsai Kakigori, which debuted in Soho's Canal Street Market, embraces the dessert's history while giving it a worldly spin. In place of singular tastes, cofounder Gaston Becherano explains that Bonsai takes "a global and modern approach," offering patrons a frequently changing roster including Vietnamese cold brew, rhubarb cobbler and coconut lime crunch. (Next up: watermelon crowned with rose whipped cream and flecked with basil meringue.)

The desserts at Bonsai Kakigori | Photo: Bonsai Kakigori

And finally, it wasn't until the weather warmed that ramen export Tonchin and the ever-sleek Lobster Club introduced their own riffs on kakigori. Each leans toward uncomplicated flavors, with Tonchin serving matcha and mango, and The Lobster Club serving a bitter, balanced espresso.

Kat Odell, a freelance food and travel writer, is the author of Day Drinking. Follow her on Instagram at @kat_odell.