Koji is the Ingredient Vegan Charcuterie Needs

A mold (!) may contain the secret to curing vegetables in a quick way that brings a classic charcuterie flavor to all-plant dishes

Maxene Graze
Published in
3 min readMay 19, 2020

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Photo: FoodCraftLab via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Until recently, vegan charcuterie has been limited to items such as beet tartare, plant-based deli slices, and chickpeas. Superficially resembling charcuterie boards, most attempts result in a spread that lacks the complex flavors developed by charcuterie techniques. As microbes, curing, and time facilitates traditional meat charcuterie’s unique palate, its vegan alternative tends to fall short in comparison.

Recently, however, a new method is producing vegan charcuterie that incorporates these three components. The core is an umami-bomb enzymatic powerhouse known as koji.

Koji is a mold that grows on just about anything starchy, usually cooked rice or barley. Its superpower lies in its enzymes, which rapidly and almost magically work to break down carbohydrates. Once koji spores have been inoculated on cooked rice, or other food, the enzymatic breakdown transforms flavor, taste, and aroma in less than 48 hours. If you were to look at a similar enzymatic process in fruiting fungi, such as standard oyster mushrooms, it can span several months rather than koji’s mere two days.

Although koji is the overlooked soul of many of Japan’s fundamental condiments: soy sauce, miso, mirin, katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), and even sake, the possibilities are endless. Modern chefs are geeking out over koji experimentation by testing possibilities that extend beyond these beloved condiments.

Jeremy Umanksy, the owner of Larder Delicatessen and Bakery in Cleveland Ohio, is one of the leading koji explorers in the United States. He made popular koji charcuterie, a method that inoculates meat with koji spores, thus speeding up meat’s curing process by 50%. It was only a matter of time before the same technique would be applied to vegetables.

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