This story originally ran on AmericasTestKitchenFeed.com on March 20, 2014.
This story originally ran on AmericasTestKitchenFeed.com on March 20, 2014.
The warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, isn’t easy to find; it’s set back a bit from the street, and you enter through an unassuming freight door. I was welcomed by the sounds of several different songs playing very loudly from several different radios. The clangs of oven doors and baking sheets accompanied the music as bakers mixed, churned, crushed, and molded the day’s ingredients into the famous Crack Pies, Compost Cookies, Cereal Milk Soft Serve, and other delicious items for sale at Momofuku Milk Bar.
After the sounds, I was hit by the smells: cinnamon, graham cracker crusts, chocolate. Snaking my way through the huge stand mixers and metal racks I stuffed my hands into my pockets to keep them from grabbing a cooling cookie, and just as I was about to let them break free, I reached the door at the back of the bakery. Behind it was a bunker of sorts, a windowless room filled with the latest outpost of David Chang’s culinary empire: Momofuku Culinary Lab’s Kaizen Trading Company.
After visiting America’s Test Kitchen in Boston last fall, Product Development Chef of the Momofuku Culinary Lab Ryan Miller was kind enough to give me and my colleague Jill Fisher a tour of the small room where grains, nuts, and seeds are turned into umami-rich fermented products made primarily from ingredients grown in the Northeast United States.
Ryan Miller is the chef-turned-fermentation-master who heads up the day-to-day operation. Originally from North Carolina, he cut his culinary teeth at Town and Cru and joined the Momofuku team in 2008, working at Ko as a line cook. After a stint in Europe (where he worked at some of the top restaurants in the world, including Noma and Vendome), Ryan came back to Momofuku as the chef de cuisine at Ssäm Bar, and then moved to the Momofuku Culinary Lab, which was founded to explore, research, and understand some of the world’s most widespread culinary traditions and techniques. In 2012, Ryan helped launch the early tests that eventually evolved into the products Kaizen Trading produces today.
Above: The labels are as attractive as the product is delicious.
So what exactly are the products? There are two: Hozon, which stands for “preserved” in Japanese, and Bonji, which stands for “essence.” Hozon is a paste with a consistency somewhere between miso and hummus, and it’s made from fermented nuts, grains, or seeds. Bonji is a dark liquid made from single-variety fermented grains. Each method is derived from the tradition and lineage of miso or tamari making, but according to the KTC website “utilizes different ingredients and techniques to create an entirely new product.” Hozon and Bonji are “flavorful bases for seasoning soups and sauces, marinating meats and fish, braising proteins and vegetables, and finishing dishes.”
Ryan walked us through the production of both Hozon and Bonji, which follow the same procedure until the very last step, when the product is either ground into a paste or pressed to expel its liquid. The initial experiments involved a lot of trial and error. “When we first started out we never knew what was going to work; there were lots of batches we threw out,” Ryan said. “But oddly enough, to actually do this is a very simple process. It’s the human element that’s our biggest struggle. There’s a lot of room for mistakes. You have to know when the product is ready for the next step.”
Above: The basmati rice takes on a starchy, white appearance about 36-48 hours after being inoculated with the fungus Aspergillus oryzae.
To the cooked starter the team adds a fungus, Aspergillus oryzae, and once placed in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, the fungus eats the starter using enzymes to create sugars and amino acids, ultimately converting them into more enzymes. Depending on the grain, the starter (referred to as koji) stays in the incubation chamber for 2 to 3 days until the fungus has eaten all the starch and the grain takes on a deep sweetness. Any flavoring (of which there are currently 4 for Hozon and 3 for Bonji: lentil, chickpea, gochu chili, sunflower, and spelt, rye, and farro respectively) gets added to the starter, along with water and salt. It then goes into a barrel and into a temperature controlled aging room, where it sits for 45 to 60 days to ferment.
Based on how each batch turns out, the team then decides whether it will be turned into Hozon or Bonji. Some restaurants, however, request the product before it’s been turned into either, such as Eleven Madison Park, which uses it to make a butter for a grain dish they serve. “We’re tailoring it to whatever the chef needs,” Ryan told me. “Some chefs just want our koji starter, for example, so we’re making that for them.”
If the mixture is destined to be Hozon, it gets ground up until it’s turned into the desired consistency. If it’s going the Bonji route, the liquid gets expelled using a press. The chickpea Hozon we tried that day was a buttery, umami-packed explosion of flavor. It’s a concentrated taste that I’ve only ever experienced in a really great miso or in my mother’s dense pesto. The Bonji is a tangy, savory, glutamate-rich sauce that made a typical soy sauce taste watery and bland. Both products lingered on my tongue long after I tasted them; I could have eaten all of the Hozon straight from the jar and washed it down with swigs of Bonji. The stuff is addicting.
Above: A grinder turns fermented grains flavored with chickpea into Hozon.
While individuals and home cooks will soon be able to place orders, Ryan and the team are focusing on the top dogs of the culinary world first. “Chefs have standing orders. For the past four months we’ve sold straight out to all different kinds of restaurants in New York City. And Ribelle in Brookline, up near you guys.” [Ed.'s note: America’s Test Kitchen’s headquarters are based in Brookline, MA.]
For Ryan, the process has been obsessive—he moved around the corner to be able to better monitor the minutiae of the projects, such as stirring the grains at exactly the right time—but rewarding. “People ask me why I left such a great post at Ssäm Bar, but for me it’s exciting to make this building block and then give it to chefs. It’s a way to reach a lot more people than just doing a dish in a restaurant.” He also loves seeing what chefs do with the products; some request the solids that are left over after a batch has been turned into Bonji and use them to season soups. “We’re learning from chefs as much as we’re giving them products.”
Above: Bonji, bottled and ready to be used.
Ryan feels lucky that KTC is under the Momofuku umbrella. It means the company basically has free market research: “Not that our chefs are forced to buy it, but they’re the first ones allowed to,” he said. His team then has direct access to their information, such as knowing exactly how much chefs use in a week and for what. “We’re working with a slow trickle of data that a smaller company doesn’t have time to collect. We can work up a solid foundation because of the parent company. So while we’re grateful that we have a heads up as a small start-up, well, on the flip side, if this stuff sucks . . .” He trailed off. “Well, there’s just a lot riding on it.”
Having tasted the product and then enjoyed a meal packed with both Hozon and Bonji at Ssäm Bar afterwards, I can attest that it is downright ambrosial. And I’m willing to bet that the day that KTC begins selling their products to a wider base of home cooks will go down in history as a watershed moment in home kitchens across America.
As Ryan led us back out of the clanging, battling-radio bakery, the smell of the sweet baked goods hit me again. Normally I’d walk out of there craving some perfectly chewy cookie or decadent slice of pie, but all I really wanted was to go back into the Momofuku Culinary Lab and eat fermenting grains. Who knew a small, windowless room in the back of a bakery could be the source of such culinary magic? Oh, that’s right—David Chang had an inkling that it could.
Momofuku Milk Bar's Christina Tosi—genius baker and funfetti cake aficionado—stopped by the test kitchen and talked about nostalgic flavors, being a picky eater, and learning from failure.