There’s a silver lining to yesterday’s sad news that Seattle’s only South African tea house, Cederberg Tea House, would close: A fermentation-obsessed Japanese cafe and market called Koku is replacing Cederberg June 19, and will even carry on pulling Cederberg’s traditional rooibos lattes and red espresso drinks.
Koku owner Kurt Schewe recently moved to Seattle from Washington, D.C., and fell in love with Cederberg and its owners. “They really have created an institution in Seattle,” he said, “so we’re going to change as little as possible! We’ll be keeping all of the same beverages including their teas, rooibos espresso, and coffee.” Instead of traditional South African baked goods, though, Schewe will pair his drinks with rice bowls, sandwiches, and salads brimming with fermented Japanese ingredients, many made on-site.
Koku, after all, is named for the Japanese concept of kokumi, or “rich flavor,” which has recently been touted as the sixth taste, that of complex carbohydrates in particular, along with sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Like umami, kokumi doesn’t necessarily have its own noticeable flavor so much as it raises the profile of everything around it.
Kokumi “is often described as heartiness and mouthfulness, enhancing and extending the five other tastes,” Schewe said. “It can be found in the presence of fats, emulsions, braised meats, and vegetables.” To foster it, Schewe will feature plenty of braised meats and kokumi-rich vegetables, like cauliflowers and onions, but beyond those obvious examples he’s also excited about pairing fermented foods and fats to create hearty kokumi flavors. For example, miso or black garlic compound butters made on-site will be spread on buttermilk biscuits or lift the flavor of rice bowls. One panini option includes cheddar, kimchi, salami, and koji ranch.
Schewe attended the French Culinary Institute in New York City and worked in Manhattan restaurants before moving to Washington, D.C., and switching to retail as the deli department head for Glen’s Garden Market, an independently owned grocery store specializing in locally sourced food. He also spent three months traveling Japan last summer, working on farms and in cafes, and reconnecting with family friends who’ve now become business partners in the cafe.
With all that in mind, Koku will also function as a market, selling Japanese specialty products and locally fermented foods including purple sweet potato vinegar, bourbon barrel-aged fish sauce, and shio koji, an umami-rich, fermented rice dressing made on-site. “Many of our products will also be featured in our menu to expose customers to these flavors and how to prepare them,” Schewe said.