Maruta Shoten, $1.89/5
My first experience with kuzuyu was on New Year's Day, 2001. I had traveled from Tokyo to my friend Yukari's home on the southern island of Kyushu using a special local-routes-only train ticket; the trip took 29 hours and 13 trains. Then I fell off the vegetarian wagon in a big way, eating nothing but fish in its many forms for about 36 hours, washing it down with can after can of beer.
So I was already feeling pretty delicate when we set out for a New Year's visit to Yukari's local shrine. The usual protocol when visiting a Japanese shrine involves dropping a coin in the offering box, clapping, and bowing to the awakened gods: choreography so simple, even I can usually manage it. However, on New Year's Day at any popular shrine, there will be a sea of people between you and the collection box; your chances of getting there with your coin are about equal to your chances of rushing the stage at a Taylor Swift concert--from the balcony.
As Yukari took out her coin purse and unconcernedly hucked her offering in the general direction of the box, I began to sweat. Throwing has never been my thing; whatever the projectile, whatever the goal, odds are it will land on my foot. But that's defeatist, right? "New year, new me, " I thought, "Maybe 2001 is the year I finally grow into my arm." I took a deep breath and slung my coin as hard as I could...into the guy standing in front of us.
As he turned around, rubbing the back of his head, I tried to blend in, but as the only non-Japanese in sight, probably didn't do a good job of it. The look on the guy's face almost broke me. I was cold, tired, bloated, hungover, and now, mortified. Yukari took one look at me and steered us through the crowds to the teahouse. Moments later, I had in my hands a steaming bowl of cloudy ginger-scented phlegm.
Yukari explained that kuzuyu is a winter drink made of starchy powdered kuzu (aka kudzu or arrowroot) and various flavorings. She commanded me to drink it down, and I did. Moments later I could feel my stomach unclench, and warmth and something like dignity seeped down my appendages. I stood up straighter, and in bad but audible Japanese, ordered another cup.
Last time I went to Japan, I brought home some kuzuyu for just such emergencies, in ginger and black sugar flavors. It's a pale powder that comes in small envelopes; when you add hot water the kuzu thickens almost instantly. I found this matcha flavored stuff at a local Japanese grocery. While the color and texture remind me of those tubs of "Ghostbusters" slime, it is tremendously warming and comforting.
Kuzu is also used to make cool summer sweets like kuzu mochi and kuzu kiri. Like many old-fashioned Japanese ingredients, kuzu is difficult and expensive to produce. Products that feature hon ("true") kuzu will generally say so on the label. It is far more common for kuzu confections, such as this one, to include a supplemental amount of a cheaper starch (in this case, from potatoes).