Tokyo’s Seriously Corny Cafe Treats
Getting Our Corn Fix With More Than Flakes
A global corn trend has wound its way from New York to L.A. and is now making its home in the creative dishes of local Tokyo chefs.
With autumn comes images of harvests, cornucopia and hearty roasted vegetables. For Japan, traditionally, autumn means sweet potato and chestnuts showing up in full force. In particular, 2023 has seen Tokyoites fall for a new flavor trend and we think it’s pretty a-maize-ing.
From Korean corn ice bars popping up in Don Quijote coolers to luxe tarts featured on morning television, corny confections have invaded the desert landscape. Here’s a look at some of this year’s most popular tomorokoshi (corn) treats, with exclusive commentary from chefs near and far.
Kakigoori (shaved ice) is a summertime favorite for dessert fans, young and old. This year, in particular, saw some of the most innovative flavors yet, including Azuki to Koori’s nori (dried seaweed) and white chocolate interpretation. However, fluffy mountains of delicate snow topped with creamy corn and roasted kernels stole the spotlight this year. Corn kakigoori was such a hit that it earned its own Instagram hashtag: #とうもろこしかき氷
We tried an especially outstanding sample at one of Tokyo’s most exclusive kakigoori shops, the recently re-opened Uehara Shokudo. Opened in late July, the kakigoori-only spot serves shaved ice that masquerades as fine art…and lunch! The corn edition featured roasted steaks of corn, sweet tomatoes, a side serving of uni, cheese and caramel cream. Hidden beneath impossibly light flakes of snow were more than three distinct varieties of corn in the form of flakes, kernels and cookies, gelée and more.
After opening to wild success (like, lines down the street, public-notice success) Uehara Shokudo closed temporarily to restructure. Now, like many of Tokyo’s other prized desserts, they operate on a reservation-only schedule several times a month. We aren’t sure when the stunning corn kakigoori will make a comeback, but in the meantime, the one-man show has managed a full house every night. If guests are lucky enough, they’ll get to meet and chat with the innovative French-trained chef carving up previous notions of Japan’s favorite icy sweet with gastronomic flair.
Cheesecake is a year-round delight, enjoying new interpretations and fanfare every season. After all, who can deny the sweet creaminess of a thick cheesecake, with its masterful blend of sweet and tart cream cheese and an endless range of flavors? In Koenji, Rad Bros Cafe introduced a perfect pairing of toasted basque cheesecake and charred sweet corn.
Asagaya’s Hachi Cafe made the morning news with a feature on Mezamashi Terebi of its corn and soy-sauce cream cheesecake tart. A feat of rich whipped cream and sweet-corn cheesecake rests atop barely there baked custard and a shortbread graham crust. One false swipe of the fork and diners risk their tomorokoshi tower tumbling into a heap of sweet kernels and decadent filling. While each layer was divine enough to stand alone, this golden glow of corn took on all new dimensions when devoured in one big bite. We have the corn’s mild, earthy sweetness and rich soy sauce umami to thank for a surprisingly balanced new favorite.
Further afield, the in-house patissier at Jiyugaoka’s Onibus Coffee opened his August tasting menu with an espresso and roasted corn tartlet. A coffee-scented financier, accented with dark chocolate, brought out a contrast in look and flavor against the mild, bright summer corn topping.
Not So Nostalgic Pudding
At Osteria Gravino in Kitasando, Chef Otsuzuki takes particular pride in his understated corn pudding. The pudding’s natural flavor, all thanks to some very specifically chosen corn, is mild enough that even less adventurous diners will take comfort in memories of cornbread and creamy chowder. Served by the slice, these delicately sweetened desserts don’t ask for anything over the top from their ingredients.
“There’s actually very little sugar,” he says, “I just work with farmers to pick the sweetest corn depending on the season and landscape.”
This time, the whole menu is highlighting produce from Nagano, and the chef is excited to be serving us on a day when he’s just gotten in a fresh supply of corn. In a reversal of recent times, where showa-era pudding has re-captured our imaginations with nostalgic bitter caramel sauce and silky-smooth custard, Granvino’s chef offers something totally new.
Keeping an ear out for what’s next…
In the midst of global shutdowns, 2021 saw Korean-inspired corn desserts popping up around Tokyo cafes. It seems that two years on, corn’s natural sweetness and mild flavor have caught on across the globe. In kitchens as far as India and America, innovative chefs are adopting corn desserts in more creative adaptations than Cracker Jack and Frosted Flakes, but that doesn’t mean these classics have been forgotten.
When asked where they find inspiration for their creations, chefs had different but overlapping experiences. Chef Otsuzuki recalled having a caramel corn drink and enjoying sweet popcorn, thinking, “I’d like to try using these flavors too.” before the invention of his signature corn pudding.
Part-time Japan resident and food stylist Hadley Sui mentioned that she’d been inspired by popcorn and cornflakes in New York desserts over recent years. She’s seen an increase in preference for less traditional dessert flavors as Japanese classics like chestnut and sweet potato continue to gain popularity. The adoption seems a natural compliment for Japan, fitting in as a summer-time balm for diners tired of super-sweet peach and lemon tartness. It just goes to show that here in Tokyo, or across the world, the influence of corn’s delicious sweetness is winning fans in droves.
So, would you try these corny treats?