This Weirdly Delicious Fungus Is the Truffle of Japan

Half Baked Harvest

With the recent fixation on gut health in the United States, fermented foods have seen a notable resurgence in popularity in American cuisine. But one under-the-radar fermenting ingredient—that's hardly recognized stateside but is responsible for many of our favorite flavors in Japanese cuisine—could be the next big thing to sweep the States.

If you've ever enjoyed miso, sake, or even soy sauce, you've already had an introduction to this special Japanese staple. The special microbe behind these delicious flavors is koji, a fermenting fungus Asian cooks have been using for centuries and what The Atlantic deems "a microbial powerhouse with seemingly magical abilities to completely transform food." In the magazine's recent feature of the Japanese fungus—derived from a random nontoxic mutation of an otherwise deadly microbe—they describe how the unassuming mold turns salty, mashed beans into delicious miso or grains into intoxicating sake.

The multipurpose mold has been popular in Asia as early as 13th-century China, as evidenced by "advertisements that are selling what's called moyashi. This is koji," says evolutionary genomicist John Gibbons of Clark University. "So five, six, seven hundred years ago, before we knew what microorganisms were, we were selling them." Today, the microbe has gained such celebrity status in Japan that it's possible to buy koji cellphone charms or read koji-themed manga. So as kombucha and kimchi continue to keep their stronghold on the American palate, get ready to see koji take over with its healthful benefits and umami-making properties.

Another hidden gem found in Japan? The most Instagrammable place to visit this spring.

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