The city of Kyoto was built in a valley surrounded by the highlands of Higashiyama, Kitayama, and Nishiyama, rolling mountains which trap the heat and humidity every summer during the rainy season known as tsuyu. I was there one summer doing my best to study, but mostly I went walking through the fog with my umbrella, weaving through the narrow alleys of the old city, and reviving myself in little cafes whenever the swelter began to overwhelm.
During tsuyu the cafes are marked with flags bearing the kanji for “ice”, which can only mean one thing—kakigori, bowls of shaved ice delicately flavored with a variety of syrups, teas, condensed milk, candied azuki, and other toppings. On days like that it’s seasonal poetry, typically Japanese, recreating the winter’s landscape in mountains of snow while outside the pulse of warm mist drifts down from the mountains.
Stripped of its distinctly Japanese trappings, the idea behind kakigori goes by a thousand names around the world: granita, water ice, halo halo, each version with its own style. In Chicago it was nieve, the Mexican version sold from pushcarts up and down Lake Michigan and outside of the Latino churches on Sunday mornings. Unlike kakigori, which is fluffy, pure ice topped with flavoring, nieve is richer from the use of frozen fruit juice, often with milk added for extra creaminess, almost like a sherbet. Wandering around the city, searching for the cart that sold the best guava or mamey, is one of my fondest memories of the few scorching summers I spent in Chicago.
After so many distractions, I had nearly forgotten the taste of kakigori altogether when my brother returned from Kyoto in July with a book profiling the summer staple in its highest form, page after page of simple beauty which returned me to those misty streets. We began looking online for an affordable ice shaver to see if we could make our own. Fortunately, Japanese immigrants brought kakigori east into Hawaii, and from there into California, making shaved ice machines in the US widely available and inexpensive, and we settled on a simple, electrically-powered model. To achieve the delicate fluffiness of the real thing you could spend hundreds or even thousands, but a simple machine like ours can get remarkably close.
When the package arrived, our plan was to create a hybrid of east and west, the airy texture of kakigori and the creaminess and bold flavor of the best nieves. To capture the taste of summer where we are, which means fresh local fruits and abundant herbs in the garden, we decided to make our ice with unsweetened peach nectar, thickened and made richer with a bit of yogurt, and topped it with a simple syrup of fresh mint. These flavors layer beautifully to create an ice that is slightly sweet, tangy, and floral all at once, a taste that recalls, for me, a wealth of summer memories, past and present.
Peach Yogurt Kakigori with Mint Syrup
Makes one large bowl, perfect for sharing
1 cup whole milk yogurt (or 2% Greek yogurt)
1 cup unsweetened peach nectar
1 cup water
1 cup unrefined sugar, like turbinado or piloncillo
1 bunch of mint, stemmed and roughly torn
To prepare the ice mixture, beat together the yogurt and peach nectar until well combined and freeze according to your shaved ice machine’s instructions. Ours came with two plastic cups, which I filled with the mixture, but yours may just require that you freeze it in an ice tray.
While the ice is freezing, make the mint syrup: combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and add in the fresh mint, then cook over medium-low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Turn off the heat and let the syrup steep for a few hours, then strain out the mint leaves and refrigerate the syrup until you’re ready to use it.
When your ice is frozen, shave it according to your machine’s instructions. Pile it high in a wide bowl and drizzle a bit of the mint syrup over the top. Save the rest of the mint syrup for future kakigori (it keeps well in the fridge), or use it over other desserts or in cocktails.