Book Reviews

Koji Alchemy Review: A Book That Will Change Your Perception Of Mould

Koji Alchemy by Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky.

Food and drink have the power to be transformative, whether it’s through unearthing a new culture, or the simple joy of spending time with friends and family. That sense of magic can be felt in certain ingredients and transform how we look at categories such as mould. Koji is exactly the kind of magical substance that will change your perception of how a mould is used in food and drink.

Koji Alchemy, written by Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky, is a comprehensive guide on understanding what makes koji so versatile. From delving into the history of different strains, to offering one-of-a-kind recipes, Koji Alchemy is a must-read book for chefs, fermentation enthusiasts and anyone who’d like to expand their knowledge on an ingredient that’s ushering in a new wave of innovation.

Spreading the gospel of Aspergillus oryzae 

“What is it that makes koji so attractive to a chef or other culinarian? For starters, koji is bewitching: It’s life cycle is fascinating, and its aroma intoxicating. Think for a moment about some of the other moulds used in food production. Would you describe the aroma of a piece of charcuterie or a hunk of blue cheese as intoxicating, mimicking honeysuckle and tropical fruits? We think not.”

This quote reflects Umansky and Shih’s passion for their subject matter and it’s felt from the first page. I discovered koji through an enthusiasm for sake, but the authors make it clear that the mold is capable of transforming the entire dining experience and my eyes were opened to a world of possibility. 

The book offers an in-depth history of koji, how it’s grown and its applications. Some of those applications include amino pastes like miso, amino sauces such as soy sauce, amazake, amakoji, kojisuzuke (koji pickles) and shio koji (high-powered salt for bringing out umami flavours).

Growing koji for yourself 

A section of the book is dedicated to growing koji from scratch and everything that entails. There’s a meticulous process that involves selecting the right spores, determining the right conditions for growth, choosing the mould’s application and how to store it. 

What’s great about this section is that technical subjects such as incubation are explained in an easy-to-follow format. This makes Koji Alchemy ideal for beginners, while offering detailed advice for fermentation professionals too. 

Weird and wonderful recipes 

Experimentation is encouraged in the koji community and the book features plenty of off-the-wall recipes that will get your creative juices flowing. Why not try making popcorn koji or koji-cultured steak bursting with umami? How about savoury miso cheese or something sweeter like koji champurrado?

Each recipe is detailed and thought-provoking, containing a personal memory of the chef who submitted it. In some ways, Koji Alchemy feels like it isn’t just Shih and Umansky’s book. It’s a collection of love letters and anecdotes from people all over the world who’re connected by an ingredient that has changed their lives. 

That is Koji Alchemy’s greatest strength. It makes you care. It makes you feel something about a subject that could be seen as dry or unsexy. But the book will change your perspective of what a mould can be and what it can help you experience. 

The hashtag #KojiBuildsCommunity is referred to again and again in the book and that couldn’t be any closer to the truth. I feel like I’m a part of the community by having read Koji Alchemy and you will too. Purchase it today.

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