What Is Koji?

What does miso, soy sauce and sake have in common? Other than hailing from Japan — or in the case of soy sauce, being very popular in Japan — they're all made possible by a microbe called koji.

According to Gastropod, the mold is what gives miso that signature umami punch. It was domesticated about 9,000 years ago and used to ferment some of our favorite foods. Much like mushrooms and huitlacoche, koji thrives off specific environments, specifically a pile of steaming cooked rice. In sake-making, the microbe is allowed to take over and produce that familiar fuzzy layer of mold we're so often alarmed by.

The Japanese are so obsessed with this mold that koji is the country's national fungi and is celebrated annually on National Fungus Day, October 12. It's also the subject of a popular manga series. However, you won't find koji-crusted pork chops anywhere in Japan.

American chefs, namely Cleveland's Jeremy Umansky at Trentina, are starting to experiment with the fungi, making charcuterie, the aforementioned pork chops and even curing scallops with koji. Umansky's so obsessed with the stuff that he hosted a TED talk based on it. Kevin Fink at Austin's Emmer & Rye is also adding the funky and salty stuff to ice cream.

Check out Gastropod's episode dedicated to the mold below. 

h/t The Atlantic