The chop looked like nothing I’d seen. I could discern its shape—the bone poking out of the thick oval of meat—but it was covered with a pale gray-white fuzz, a Lilliputian moonscape of craters and mountains, darker gray rivulets dotting the surface. It didn’t look like meat. In fact, it looked like an overgrown pork chop–shaped piece of Camembert. And yet I couldn’t wait for it to be fried.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever been so excited to eat a fungus-crusted pork chop,” I confessed to chef Jeremy Umansky, of Cleveland, Ohio, who will open a Jewish-style deli called Larder in Cleveland next spring. Umansky had taken the fuzzy whitish meat out of the professional dehydrator wedged into the corner of his crowded home dining room to cook. “Except maybe you.”
I was about to taste something that few people have eaten because, as far as I can tell, Umansky may well be the only one to have created such a dish.
The whitish fluff, usually so unappetizing on a pork chop, was koji, an ancient mold, one humans in Asia domesticated for food perhaps as far back as 9,000 years ago. Though koji is not as famous in the United States as other microbes domesticated for food, such as those that beget beer, cheese, and wine, in Asia it’s legendary. It’s used to make soy sauce, Chinese fermented black bean paste, Korean fermented bean paste and rice wine, and Japanese miso and sake. The Brewing Society of Japan has proclaimed koji the country’s national mold. In the manga—a Japanese comic—called Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture, one of the main characters is a perky golf ball–size talking koji spore.
Koji, or Aspergillus oryzae, flourishes in a hot, humid environment, as befits a mold that evolved in the Asian tropics. The spores first take root on moist, partially or fully cooked grains, releasing powerful enzymes called proteases (to break down proteins) and amylases (to break down starches) as they grow, converting the grain into sugar and using that sugar to fuel koji’s growth. The resulting koji-grain culture, rich with enzymes, is then mixed into a second product, such as soybeans. The proteases and amylases transform soybeans into entirely new products. Soy sauce and miso both rely on koji for their transmogrification.
But Umansky, by growing koji directly on a rice flour–dusted pork chop and leaving the mold on as a sort of breading, was exploiting koji’s magic in a manner far removed from its origins in Asia. He’s one of a small but growing group of American chefs who are discovering the power of this tiny microbe. They’re testing koji’s limits and creating new flavors for American diners.