The Kaizen Trading Company lab in Brooklyn is the Willy Wonka factory of fermentation and umami. The Momofuku-backed culinary incubator focuses on two products: hozon, a Japanese miso-like product made from nuts, seeds, and legumes, and bonji, Kaizen’s version of soy sauce fermented from local Northeastern grains. Both fermented products—which are made without soy—add a savory roundness to dishes that all humans crave on a deep level.
In the not-so-distant future, you’ll be able to add these unique ingredients to your pantry; for now, you can find NYC’s top chefs utilizing them in their kitchens. At Estela, you can sip a Bloody Mary seasoned with bonji made from guajillo chilles. The jalapeño uni poppers at Alder are made with red bean hozon. Have you tried the meatless hozon ramen at Momofuku Noodle Bar? If you haven’t, you should change that right now.
Photo: Jeffrey de Picciotto
Earlier this month, Ryan Miller—product development chef for Kaizen Trading Company and the Culinary Lab (Momofuku’s research facility)—showed off the power of hozon and bonji at a Brooklyn Brewery dinner. The event was the first in a series called Dinner Party, held at the Humboldt & Jackson tasting room in Williamsburg.
Miller teamed up with Brooklyn Brewery chef Andrew Gerson to create pork ribs (pictured below) with mole hozon made from fermented chili, chocolate, cashews, and pumpkin seeds. A pasta course consisted of a creamy cacio e pepe that swapped butter and cheese for chickpea hozon cheese and black pepper bonji. The five-course feast highlighted the myriad uses for the umami-rich Kaizen seasonings.
Pork ribs with black bean mole hozon (Photo: Jeffrey de Picciotto)
We caught up with Miller after the dinner to ask him more about Kaizen Trading Co. products and the power of fermentation.
Q&A with Kaizen Trading Company’s Ryan Miller
Why has “fermentation” become such a buzzword in the food world recently?
People talking about and playing around with fermentation is just a natural evolution of food culture in America. Americans were bound to stumble upon the ancient fermentation techniques that were lost during the industrialization of the country’s food system. It all started out with small farmers producing really great food, then came industrialization, then people got away from the mass-produced supermarket products and got back to buying from the farm. More recently, people began educating themselves about what they eat, which has led to fermentation and preserving all the great foods that small farmers produce.
What are the benefits of fermentation in regards to food and cooking?
From a consumer standpoint, if you’re purchasing fermented products, a lot of the legwork and difficult processes have been taken out of the equation. You’re able to go to a supermarket, find an artisanal producer of pickles, miso, etcetera, and you’re able to get an extreme amount of flavor from a product that you wouldn’t be able to get by other means—unless you did the hard work yourself. I think that’s the best angle for fermentation—taking all that hard work and guesswork out of the equation and delivering it right to the consumer where they can play around with, and reap the benefits of that great umami and rich flavor.
David Chang explained that one of the undercurrents of the lab was trying to understand umami. What is your definition of umami?
Umami is referred to as the fifth taste—after the more commonly known salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. The taste receptor for umami arose during human evolution to identify foods that are rich in proteins through the perception of an amino acid called glutamic acid. The sensation of umami is one of “savoriness.” It’s that full-flavored satisfaction one feels from eating dry-aged beef, cheese, mushrooms, balsamic vinegars, and many other fermented foods.
We continuously explore how umami can express itself and enhance different foods.
At Kaizen Trading Company and Momofuku Culinary Lab, our focus is on using old-world fermentation techniques on non-traditional ingredients, and so by the nature of the process, our products are packed with various umami-inducing compounds. Just as salty flavors elevate the perception of sweetness, there is also a complementary relationship between umami and the other tastes. We continuously explore how umami can express itself and enhance different foods.
Photo: Jeffrey de Picciotto
What are hozon and bonji made from and how are they meant to be used in the kitchen?
We’re focusing on not using soy beans in our products. So all of the Kaizen products are made in the lineage of miso and soy-making—but because we don’t utilize soy in any of our products, we’ve developed the names “hozon” and “bonji.” Essentially, they’re fermented legumes, nuts, or seeds that have a good amount of umami. The bonji is made with Northeastern grains—hearty winter grains like rye, barley, and spelt. We’re selling the unique fermented products to professional chefs as building blocks to their cuisine. They’re great for flavoring soups and sauces, marinating meats and fish, braising proteins and vegetables, and finishing dishes.
Why did you want to produce hozon and bonji with rice, legumes, nuts, and seeds opposed to soybeans?
We wanted to broaden the chef’s culinary pantry. We wanted to take something that’s seemingly mundane, like a rye berry, and extract as much flavor from that as possible. And there are plenty of great soy producers in Japan—but just one or two here—so we wanted to showcase the bounty that we have here in the Northeast and the versatility of these local products.
Vegetable crudite with hozon dips (Photo: Jeffrey de Picciotto)
What has been one of the most surprising successes at Kaizen Trading Co.?
One of the most interesting successes was fermenting peas, which we hadn’t done up until a year ago. Also, sunflower fermented really well.
Where do you source the fungus from to make the fermentation happen?
We used a company in Oregon called GEM Cultures [that has] the isolated fungus that we use in our grain. There’s also natural fungus found on the rice.
The next couple years for us is going to be focused on vegan cheeses—because most of the stuff in the stores is pretty gross—and different varieties of vinegar.
What experiments and projects do you have planned for the future?
We’re currently working on expanding our vocabulary in the fermentation world. The next couple years for us is going to be focused on vegan cheeses—most of the stuff in the stores is pretty gross—and different varieties of vinegars. The Northeast has a great selection of apple orchards and a lot of honey producers, and turning those products into vinegar at one point is definitely a dream of mine.
How do you plan to revolutionize the world of vegan cheese?
We are taking the same approach that we did with the miso and soy, and basically that approach is [about] extracting the mechanism—the one or two things that really transform and turn that product into something special. Then, we’ll take that and play around with it as much as we can.