History of Koji - Grains and/or Soybeans Enrobed with a Mold Culture (300 BCE to 2012)
William Shurtleff, Akiko AoyagiISBN: 978-1-928914-45-7
Publication Date: 2012 July 17
Number of References in Bibliography: 1560
Earliest Reference: 300 BCE
What is koji?
Koji is a culture prepared by growing either Aspergillus oryzae or Monascus purpureus mold on cooked grains and/or soybeans in a warm, humid place. Koji serves as a source of enzymes that break down (or hydrolyze / digest / split) natural plant constituents into simpler compounds when making miso, soy sauce, sake, amazake, and other fermented foods. Its fragrant white (or red) mycelium, which looks somewhat like the surface of a tennis ball, has a delightful aroma resembling that of mushrooms.
Koji can be divided into two basic types, depending on the type mold used. Most koji is made using Aspergillus oryzae (pronounced ass-per-JIL-us oh-RAI-zee). Red rice koji is made using Monascus purpureus; it is called beni koji in Japan and hong qu in China; both these terms mean “red koji.” Red rice koji is used primarily as a natural food coloring and as a natural preservative.
Kôji is a Japanese word now widely used in the Western world and non-Chinese speaking countries in the scientific and popular literature on fermented foods, Japanese foods, and natural foods. Koji is written with the exact same character in China and Japan.
In Chinese this character is romanized as qu (pronounced “chew”) in pinyin or ch'ü in the Wade-Giles system. Koji was invented in China at least three centuries before the Christian era.
Koji usually serves as the basis for a second fermentation, in which its enzymes help to hydrolyze (break down or digest) basic nutrients. The enzyme amylase (formerly called diastase) digests carbohydrates, the enzyme protease breaks down proteins, and the enzyme lipase (pronounced LAI-pase) digests lipids (fats).
Rice koji, barley koji, and soybean koji are used to make three different types of miso. Koji for Japanese soy sauce is made from a mixture of roasted wheat and defatted soybean meal; this koji is dark-green in color. Whole soybean koji is used to make traditional Chinese soy sauce and fermented back soybeans (also known as Hamanatto, Daitokuji natto, douchi, Chinese black beans, etc.).
Rice koji is used to make both Japanese amazake (pronounced ah-muh-ZAH-kay; non-alcoholic) and sake (rice wine, alcoholic). Koji is to sake as malt is to beer. Each saccharifies the starch (breaks the starch down into sugars) so that these sugars can be fermented to alcohol by yeasts.
Brief chronology of koji:
300 BCE – Koji (qu, pronounced “chew”) is first mentioned in the Zhouli [Rites of the Zhou dynasty] in China. The invention of koji is a milestone in Chinese food technology, for it provides the conceptual framework for three major fermented soyfoods: soy sauce, jiang / miso, and fermented black soybeans, not to mention grain based wines (incl. Japanese sake) and li (the Chinese forerunner of Japanese amazake).
165 BCE – Fermented black soybeans (made from soybean koji) are found clearly marked in Han Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui near today’s Changsha, Hunan province, in south-central China. The tomb was sealed in about 165 B.C. and was first opened in 1972. The high-ranking lady to whom the tomb belonged was probably the wife of the first Marquis of Tai.
90 BCE – Fermented black soybeans (niequ yanshi qianhe) are mentioned in Chapter 69 of the Shiji [Records of the Historian], by Sima Qian. This is the earliest known history of China and the most famous of all Chinese historical works. Chapter 69 shows that fermented black soybeans (made from soybean koji) (as well as soybeans) had now clearly become major commodities in the Chinese economy.
100 CE – In the Liji (also named Xiaodai Liji) [The Book of Rites], Chapter 6, titled “Monthly Ordinances,” contains the earliest known description in Chinese of how grain-based wine (jiu, Japanese sake) was made from millet and rice koji by the Superintendent of Wine.
121 CE – The Shuowen Jiezi [Analytical Dictionary of Characters] contains an early character for qu (koji). It is written with a bamboo radical on top of the word denoting chrysanthemum. The etymology of this character is therefore consistent with the notion that the product was first formed when steamed rice granules were exposed to air in a bamboo basket and that at some time it would acquire the color of the yellow chrysanthemum (Huang 2000, p. 261-62).
150 CE – The Shiming [Expositor of Names] discusses various types of qu (koji).
544 CE – The Qimin Yaoshu [Important Arts for the People’s Welfare], by Jian Sixie contains the first detailed descriptions of how to make qu (koji). Chapters 64-67 deal with both koji and wine. The author gives detailed descriptions of the methods for making nine different types of koji, as well as 37 types of grain-based wines. The nine types of koji are listed in table 20 of Huang 2000 (p. 170). Of these nine, there are actually only four major types. Wheat is the substrate for all except the last one, which uses Setaria millet. Koji is also discussed in this ancient book under jiang, fermented black soybeans (shi), and soy sauce.
725 CE – The Harima no Kuni Fudoki [Geography and Culture of Harima province], from Japan, is the first document that mentions koji outside of China. It states that by the early 8th century in Japan, koji was being made using airborne koji molds.
760 CE – The Manyōshū (Collection of Japan’s Earliest Songs and Poems) (from 350-759 CE) mentions koji – the 2nd earliest Japanese work to do so (Yokotsuka 1986, p. 198).
965 CE – The earliest known reference to hong qu (red rice koji; made with Monascus purpureus) appears in China in the Qing Yilu [Anecdotes, Simple and Exotic], by Tao Ku. Among the recipes there is one for red pot-roast lamb, in which meat is simmered with red rice koji) (Huang 2000, p. 193).
1603 – Vocabulario da Lingoa de Iapam [Vocabulary of the Language of Japan], a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary, is compiled and published by Jesuit missionaries in Nagasaki, Japan. There are entries for:
Côji [Koji], a yeast [sic] used in Japan to make sake, or mixed with other things.
Amazaqe [Amazake], a still-bubbling fermented liquid that has not yet completely become sake; or sweet sake.
This is the earliest European-language document seen that mentions koji or amazake.
1712 – In his landmark Latin-language book Amoenitatum exoticarum politico-physico-medicarum [Exotic novelties, political, physical, medical, Vol. 5, p. 834-35], Engelbert Kaempfer is the 2nd Westerner to mention koji (which he calls koos)as part of his description of how miso is made in Japan. Kaempfer lived and traveled in Japan from 23 Sept. 1690 to Nov. 1692 and made many interesting observations. Kaempfer clearly did not understand what koji was, how it functioned, or how it was made. Yet he did realize that “its production requires… the experienced hand of the master.”
1766 May – Samuel Bowen starts to export and sell Bowen’s Patent Soy, a type of soy sauce that he learned how to make in China and that he started to make at Thunderbolt near Savannah, Colony of Georgia (Georgia Gazette 1766 May 28, p. 1; Hymowitz & Harlan. 1983. “Introduction of the Soybean to North America by Samuel Bowen in 1765.” Economic Botany, Dec. p. 371-79).
Bowen must have been the first person to make koji in North America, since he is known to have made good soy sauce and since it is not possible to make good soy sauce without making good koji. He probably made his koji from whole soybeans, but he might have used a combination of wheat and soybeans. Yet how did he get koji starter from China to Savanna? Perhaps he caught natural airborne spores.
1779 – The Encyclopedia Britannica (2nd ed.), under “Dolichos,” mentions koji (which it calls koos, after Kaempfer) in English – as part of its description of how miso is made in Japan.
1783 – Koji (called Koos, after Kaempfer 1712) is mentioned for the 3rd time in English by Charles Bryant in his Flora Diaetetica. It is included in a description of how to make miso.
1797 – The Nihon Sankai Meisan Zue [Illustrations of Japanese Products of Land and Sea] contains the earliest known illustration of koji being made in Japan; the koji is then shown being made into sake.
1818 – Basil Hall, in his Account of a Voyage of Discovery to… the Great Loo-Choo Island [Okinawa or Ryukyu] states: “… hard boiled eggs, cut into slices, the outside of the white being colored red.” The red color was probably imparted to the outside of the shelled eggs by red rice koji.
1867 – Koji is mentioned in English in A Japanese and English Dictionary, by James C. Hepburn. It states: “Koji: Malt made by fermenting rice or barley, in the process of making sake, and soy [sauce].” This was also the first time that koji was incorrectly called “malt.” Also: “Koji-buta: A shallow box for holding malt.”
1870-1889 – The modern field of microbiology (actually bacteriology) is pioneered in Europe by Ferdinand Cohn, Robert Koch, and Louis Pasteur. The identification and classification of microorganisms begins.
1874 – Prof. J.J. Hoffman of Leyden, Netherlands, then a professor in the medical school of Tokyo University, publishes a 4-page paper in German titled Ueber die Bereitung von Schoju, Sake und Mirin (On the Preparation of Shoyu, Sake, and Mirin) in the Mittheilungen der Deutschen Gesellschaft fuer Natur- und Volkerkunde Ostasiens (Yokohama). Not long before this (but at an unknown date) he had published a translation of an article on sake from the Japanese Encyclopedia (1714) (Atkinson 1881, p. iii) – making these the first two documents in European languages that discussed koji in detail. However no names of microorganisms appear in this article.
1876 – The Official Catalogue of the Japanese Section: And Descriptive Notes on the Industry and Agriculture of Japan, by the Imperial Japanese Commission to the International Exhibition at Philadelphia contains a good description of how to make soy sauce using koji made of wheat and soybeans. It begins (p. 112): “The soy, or ‘soyu,’ is made of a small bean, the ‘Dolichos hispida,’ to which are mixed wheat, salt and water. The beans are first boiled, and the wheat bruised and steamed; both are then mixed with a small addition of fermenting wheat [koji], placed in flat wooden boxes and kept for several days at fixed temperature in a special room. At the end of three days, the mass [koji] is all covered with fungi and partly with roots of germination…”
1878 March 10 – “Kōji no Setsu” [Theory of Koji] by H. Ahlburg and Shinnosuke Matsubara published in Japanese in Tokyo Iji Shinshi (Tokyo Medical Journal), p. 12-16. This article contains the terms Eurotium, and E. Oryzae Ahlbg. The koji mold was originally named Eurotium oryzae Ahlburg; in 1884 it was renamed Aspergillus oryzae (Ahlburg) Cohn by Cohn. Western knowledge of microbiology is rapidly reaching Japanese scientists.
1878 Sept. 12 – R.W. [Robert William] Atkinson, a British professor (D.Sc.) at the University of Tokio [Tokyo], writes a 3-page article titled “Brewing in Japan,”published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature (London). Interested in the new science of microbiology, he is one of the first three Westerners to study and understand koji in depth, he is the first who writes in English. In describing a visit to sake breweries situated in Hachioji near Tokio, he gives a detailed description of how koji is made from tané (spores), then how sake is made from koji. This is the earliest English-language document seen that mentions tané, the mold spores from which koji is made, or that mentions the use of wood-ash in making koji or that mentions “the friend of tane” [tomo koji].
1878 Dec. – Mr. O. Korschelt, in Japan, publishes a 19-page paper titled Ueber Sake (On Sake) in the Mittheilungen der Deutschen Gesellschaft fuer Natur- und Volkerkunde Ostasiens (Yokohama). It contains a detailed discussion of koji and how to make it.
1880 April – A paper by R.W. Atkinson (in Japan) titled “Preliminary Note on the Action of the New Diastase, Eurontin, on Starch” is read to the Chemical Society, London. This is the earliest English-language document seen that contains the word “diastase” used to refer to the starch-splitting enzyme today called “amylase.”
1881 March – R.W. Atkinson expands his 3-page article into an 81-page monograph titled “The chemistry of saké-brewing,” published in Memoirs of the Tokyo Imperial University Science Department. His discussion of koji and its preparation, of its active properties and its action upon cane sugar and maltose, is much more detailed and knowledgeable than before. This is the earliest English-language document seen that describes how to make koji on a commercial scale. He notes that in Tokio, koji is made in long tunnels cut into the clay, 25-30 feet long and 15-20 feet below ground level. He uses the word “ferment” to refer to what would soon (by May 1881) be called an enzyme.
1881 May 1 – R.W. Atkinson writes “On the diastase of koji.” Diastase would soon be called an enzyme. Atkinson states: "I feel that some apology is needed for using the Japanese word kôji, but as there is no foreign product in any way resembling it, I have thought that there would be less danger of confusion arising by retaining the Japanese word than by using the word 'malt.' As will be seen from the following description, the nature of this substance is quite different from that of malt, so that the use of that word might lead to erroneous impressions."
1891 Feb. 20 – The first article about Jokichi Takamine’s work with koji appears in the Chicago Daily Tribune. Titled “Whiskey to be cheaper. Discovery of a new and better process of manufacture. From 12 to 15 per cent can be saved over the old method – Takamine a Japanese, the inventor – He sells his secret to the trust – It will be immediately utilized. Prospect of a reduction of the retail price.” it explains that he wants to replace malt with koji in the process of making whiskey in Peoria, Illinois. This is also the earliest publication seen that mentions Jokichi Takamine or that mentions the words “koji” or “moyashi” in connection with him. He is now a resident of Chicago, the husband of an American woman (née Caroline Hitch), an expert chemist, and head of the “Takamine Fermenting Co.”[probably Takamine Ferment Co.]. He has made tests of his new process at the Phoenix and other distilleries in Peoria.
1891 Feb. 28 – First article about the work of Jokichi Takamine that mentions diastase (a starch-digesting enzyme now, called amylase) is published in the Peoria Herald (Illinois, p. 8).
1891 March 7 – A major front-page article, by the Associated Press, appears in the Los Angeles Times. Titled “’Microbe straight.’ The new drink that barkeepers will serve,” it begins: "Chicago, March 6. The Takamine Ferment Company, organized by the Whiskey Trust to exploit a new process of whisky-making invented by the Japanese chemist Takamine, has increased its capital stock to $10,000,000." This is the earliest document seen that mentions the "Whiskey Trust" in connection with Mr. Takamine.
1891 June 17 – Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist residing in Chicago, applies for his first U.S. koji patent. However he has already secured patents in Canada, Belgium, France, and Austria-Hungary.
1891 Sept. 24 – Another major article about Jokichi Takamine appears in the Chicago Daily Tribune (p. 7). Peoria – “For several months the Distillers and Cattle Feeders' company [whisky trust] has been experimenting with the Takamine process of making whiskey." Takamine "has been here personally conducting the experiment. The distillers are so well pleased that they have decided to fit up the Manhattan distillery with new machinery. The new plan greatly reduces the cost of manufacture. A queer feature is that a species of bugs found on the rice is used instead of yeast for the fermenting process." No: A species of mold is used instead of malt.
1891 Oct. 8 – A fire of unknown origin, which started shortly after midnight, burned one building at the Manhattan Distillery (3 story brick building at South
Water St., Peoria), which "was being fitted for experiments in the manufacture of Tackimine [sic, Takamine] whiskey." (Peoria Transcript, p. 8, col. 3).
Peoria fire department records show that there was no major fire in 1893 – as was later often reported in literature about Takamine.
1891 Oct. 12 – Takamine applies for his first British koji patent, No. 17,374. A fungus of the genus Aspergillus is grown on steamed rice to make Taka-Moyashi and pure Taka-Moyashi. “Tané-Koji (or seed koji) or Moyashi, is a term that as been heretofore applied to a yellowish green mouldy mass, consisting of steamed rice covered by a Mycelial fungus, bearing yellowish green spherical cells, and has the property of producing both diastase and ferment cells. It has not heretofore been designated by any specific name and, and I call it ‘Aspergillus Koji.’” This is the earliest document seen in which the word “Aspergillus” or the terms “Tané-Koji” or “ashes of trees” are used in connection with koji or with Dr. Takamine.
1892 April 17 – Yet another major article about Jokichi Takamine appears in the Chicago Daily Tribune (p. 6). He has apparently survived the fire and now, for the first time, we learn that his koji is made from “wheat bran” which is much less expensive than other substrates for producing koji enzymes.
1894 Feb. 23 – Jokichi Takamine applies for his earliest patent (U.S. Patent No. 525,823) which contains the word “enzyme” (or enzymes”) or the terms “diastatic enzyme” or “taka-koji” or “tane-koji” in connection with koji. This was the first patent on a microbial enzyme in the United States. This enzyme “possesses the power of transforming starch into sugar.”
"Takamine, in 1894, was probably the first to realize the technical possibilities of enzymes from molds and to introduce such enzymes to industry" (Underkofler 1954, p. 98).
1894 Nov. 27 – The last article about Jokichi Takamine’s work with koji and whiskey in Illinois appears in the Peoria Transcript (p. 2). Titled “Distilleries to start: There will be a resumption of business at once,” it states that at the Manhattan distillery “the Takamine process will be tested with further improvements made during the season. The distilling business is now looking up.”
1894 – Takamine moves his Takamine Ferment Co. to Chicago make diastase on a relatively small scale based on his 1894 patent.
1895 July – Parke, Davis & Co. of Detroit, Michigan is now making and aggressively marketing Taka-Diastase. After its efficacy became more widely known, Jokichi Takamine contracted with Parke, Davis for full-scale manufacturing and marketing of the product (Parke, Davis 1895 July; Kawakami 1928, p. 36).
This is the earliest known commercial enzyme made in North America. Dr. Clifford W. Hesseltine states (1991): “Dr. Jokichi Takamine was the father of commercial enzymology.”
Takamine recognized that the diastatic properties of the Aspergillus enzyme had potential medical applications. Parke, Davis & Company marketed Taka-Diastase as a digestive aid for the treatment of dyspepsia said to be due to the incomplete digestion of starch. Taka-Diastase was enormously successful and Takamine became a consultant to the company.
1897 Dec. – With Parke, Davis as his patron, Takamine moves his family to New York from Chicago and establishes an independent laboratory on East 103rd Street in Manhattan [New York]. He soon founded the International Takamine Ferment Company and the Takamine Laboratory.
1897 – Yamamori Jozo-sho (Yamamori Brewery), at 561 North 6th Street, San Jose, California, is the earliest known company to make shoyu (Japanese-style soy sauce) in the United States. To make shoyu, they must have made koji. So they were the 2nd company in North America to make koji for use in making soy sauce.
1898 Jan. 21 – Jokichi Takamine, at the New York Section of the Society, presents a long, brilliant paper titled “Diastatic substances from fungus growths” which is published in the Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry (London) on Feb. 28 (p. 118-20). This is the earliest document seen in which Takamine mentions “taka-diastase,” the digestive enzyme he has patented.
1899 – Jokichi Takamine receives the degree of Doctor of Chemical Engineering from the Imperial University of Japan, and in 1906 the degree of Doctor of Pharmacy (W.W. Scott 1922, p. 371). Hereafter he is widely referred to as “Dr. Takamine.”
1906 – The Karuhorunia Miso Seizo-jo [California Miso Manufacturing Co.] at 262 Brannan St., San Francisco, California, is the earliest known company to make miso in the United States. In a 1906 ad (in Japanese) they describe themselves as manufacturers of Japan miso. To make miso, they must have made koji. So they were the first company in North America to make koji for use in making miso.
Other early Japanese makers of miso and koji in the United States were: Yamane Miso in Sacramento, California (1907) and Kodama Miso Seizo-sho in Los Angeles (1908).
1908 – Kodama Miso Seizo-sho, at 310 Crocker St. in Los Angeles, California, is the earliest known company to make and sell koji in the United States. They advertise their koji as Shiro Koji (“White Koji”).
As noted above, they also use this koji to make their own commercial miso.
1909 June 16 – “A preliminary note on the varieties of Aspergillus oryzae,” by Teizo Takahashi is published in the Journal of the College of Agriculture, Tokyo Imperial University. He isolated three varieties of molds from three kinds of koji starter (tane koji) from three sources (sake, miso, and shoyu).
1913 – Marusan Joto Shiromiso, at 607-609 North Alameda, Los Angeles, is the 2nd earliest known company to make and sell koji in the United States. They advertise their koji (in English) as “Special Koji.” Hence they are the first to advertise koji in English in the USA.
1915 Nov. – The Takamine Laboratory, which makes and does research on Taka-Diastase and other koji products, moves to Passaic, New Jersey – about 10 miles west of Manhattan. Joe Takamine, Jr. is now in charge of this facility (Scott 1922, History of Passaic and Its Environs, Vol. III, p. 372).
1952 summer – “The Distillers’ and Cattle Feeders Trust," by Earnest E. East is published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (p. 101-23). The best scholarly summary seen of Dr. Takamine’s work and troubles in Peoria.
1970 July 7 – The catalog of The Erewhon Trading Co., Inc. titled Traditional Foods states: “Koji rice, imported from Japan, will be available soon.” Why would young Caucasian Americans want koji? So they can make their own miso and amazake. Erewhon is a pioneer in the macrobiotic, the natural-foods, and the soyfoods movements; these three movements soon give rise to a rebirth of interest in koji.
1971 Oct. – An article in East West Journal (p. 6; the flagship national macrobiotic publication) titled “Making Miso” mentions that “Erewhon will introduce to the domestic market a yeast grain called koji, essential to the production of miso.”
1971 – Cornellia Aihara, in “Macrobiotic child care” published in Macroguide (Chico, California) No. 8 (41 p.) describes how to make amasake at home using “2 cups sweet brown rice. ¼ cup koji, and 4 cups water." Note: Koji is now being made in Chico by Junsei Yamazaki, who uses it to make "Yinnies," an organic grain-based chewy candy or sweet syrup, for Chico-San Inc.
1973 Sept. – An article in The Macrobiotic (Chico, California, No. 92, p. 22), titled “Miso making with white rice koji,” states: "Koji is rice or wheat, barley, etc. which has been treated with a mold called succaromises [sic, Saccharomyces is a yeast genus]. Koji rice (only white rice unfortunately) is available in Japanese food stores."
1976 Sept. – The Book of Miso, by Shurtleff and Aoyagi (Autumn Press), contains a chapter titled “Koji cookery” (p. 162-63, with detailed recipes for amazaké, daikon pickled in koji, and eggplants pickled in koji) followed by extensive, illustrated information about making koji and koji starter at home (the earliest such document; p. 177-82). Koji is also mentioned on a total of 97 pages throughout the book.
1977 Aug. – Miso Production, by Shurtleff and Aoyagi (Soyfoods Center), describes (with many illustrations) how to make koji and miso on a commercial scale – for people who want to start and run a business. The first book of its type.
1978 May – Miyako Oriental Foods, Inc., a miso manufacturer in Los Angeles, California, launches Cold Mountain Firm Granular Rice Koji, which it makes. A leaflet explaining how to use koji accompanies the product. The package design, product name, and product concept were developed by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi at the request of Mr. Noritoshi Kanai.
1979 March 13 – The first Caucasian-run miso company in North America, the Ohio Miso Co., in Monroeville, Ohio, founded by Thom Leonard and Richard Kluding, begin making miso and koji on this date. Thom has been making miso on a small, noncommercial scale since 1974. Other Caucasian-run North American miso companies that (of course) also made their own koji were:
1979 April - Shin-Mei-Do Miso (by Lulu Yoshihara; Denman Island, BC, Canada).
1981 Oct. American Miso, Inc. (by John Belleme; Rutherfordton, North Carolina).
1982 Oct. South River Miso Co. (having bought out Ohio Miso Co. in Nov. 1980, Christian and Gaella Elwell started their own production in Oct. 1982 in Conway, Massachusetts).
1993 Sept. – Bibliography of Koji, by Shurtleff and Aoyagi published (Soyfoods Center; 535 references, 151 pages).
2000 Dec. – Vol. 6, Biology and Biological Technology. Part V: Fermentations and Food Science, by H.T. Huang is published in the Science and Civilisation in China series, by Joseph Needham. This book contains vast amounts of information about the early history of qu (koji) in China.
2002 Jan. – “Takamine Jokichi and the transmission of ancient Chinese enzyme technology to the West," by H.T. Huang is published as a book chapter in Chan et al. Huang observes: "When we talk of technology transfer in the last hundred years, we tend to think of the traffic as flowing entirely from West to East.”
2004 – Professor Emeritus Eiji Ichishima of Tohoku University, Japan, proposes that the koji mold, Aspergillus oryzae, be called a “national fungus” (kokkin), much like national or state birds, flowers, trees, or animals – in the prestigious Nippon Jozo Kyokai Zasshi (Journal of the Brewing Society, Japan); his proposal is approved at the society’s annual meeting in 2006.
2012 April – The Art of Fermentation, by Ellix Sandor Katz is published by Chelsea-Green Publishing Co (xxiii + 498 p.). Katz describes himself as a “fermentation revivalist.” The word “koji” appears on 41 pages in this book.
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