The so-called raindrop cake — New York’s most recent viral food sensation — looks like an enormous droplet of water. Nestled between a mound of roasted soybean flour and a puddle of dark brown sugar syrup, it’s made from unsweetened spring water and set with agar, an algae-derived gelatinous substance that makes it jiggle like Jell-O.
It debuted earlier this month, as the sole offering of the eponymously named purveyor Raindrop Cake, one of a handful of newcomers this year at seasonal hipster street-food market Smorgasburg, and quickly captivated food-lovers and trend-seekers alike. Its rapid anointing as the hottest new dessert around — the Today anchors have sampled it, Slate has dubbed it “the next cult dessert,” and even the Weather Network jumped at the excuse to cover it — has spawned just as many skeptics as it has Instagrams. (People are mad that it’s called a cake. People are mad that it’s called dessert when the main ingredient is spring water. People think it looks like a breast implant.)
In Japan, where it’s more commonly called mizu shingen mochi (or “water cake”), the raindrop cake has been a novelty dessert for a couple of years already. The Kinseiken Seika Company came up with the concept in 2014, to a brief burst of internet fame, but New York’s recent obsession is arguably the work of Darren Wong, the founder of Raindrop Cake. Wong, who tells the Voice via email that his dessert business is now “a full-time gig on top of my regular gig” as an advertising strategist, watched the internet go nuts over the Kinseiken water cake. Realizing that “it’s not a ‘cake’ anyone has ever seen before in America,” he whipped up his own version, landing on a brilliant product for New York, the city that seems to birth new viral foods — the Cronut, the ramen burger, the rainbow bagel — every month. “I felt confident this could be an interesting item for Smorgasburg,” he explains, “but getting media attention from around the world has been both surprising and exciting, to say the least.”
But let’s give credit where credit is due. If you separate the “viral” from “dessert,” you get a more complex story. The raindrop cake has antecedents in some very traditional Japanese sweets. It’s basically a water-based version of shingen mochi, a dessert of glutinous rice-cake cubes (mochi) topped with kinako (roasted soybean powder) and kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup). The “cake” misnomer is only the result of an awkward translation.
Unflavored agar has a place in Japanese desserts too. Tomoko Yagi makes desserts for several of the restaurants in her husband, Bon Yagi’s, respected East Village Japanese empire. One of her favorites is anmitsu, a casual confection found in most Japanese cafés, which she makes for both the teahouse Cha An and noodle shop Soba-ya. The name is a portmanteau of anko (sweet red-bean paste) and kuromitsu, and the traditional version consists only of these two ingredients atop flavorless agar cubes. Yagi dresses hers up with mochi balls, strawberry, and scoops of ice cream and leaves the agar unsweetened. “It’s the perfect vehicle to enjoy the other ingredients,” she tells the Voice over bowls of it at Cha An. In the best versions, the agar “has a firmness, but then it melts in your mouth,” she explains. “It’s all about the mouthfeel.”
The raindrop cake is a close relative of anmitsu. I tried Wong’s raindrop cake on a recent rainy Saturday and found it flavorful and refreshing, even with a distractingly cold wind whipping off the East River; just as Yagi described, each bite burst and melted in my mouth. Despite his cake being dubbed “the next Cronut,” Wong, for one, thinks its appeal actually lies in how different it is from other recent viral desserts. It is, he says, “flying against the trend in frankenfoods,” which typically find success in cramming as many elements (and calories) as possible into one dish.
Meanwhile, for those looking to get away from Smorgasburg, I’d recommend an earlier version of the water cake that has made it to New York: at SenYa, an East Village restaurant that has been serving one since it opened last year. Owner Cayvian Choo tells the Voice she put it on the menu because she wanted “to be a little different” from all the other Japanese restaurants serving mochi and ice cream. SenYa’s water cake, which is a little firmer than Wong’s and served with maple syrup and red-bean paste, has generated its own little frenzy through word of mouth and Yelp. Choo says they sell out by eight every night and customers often reserve one for dessert before they even sit down. That’s good enough for her, but it also hasn’t led to any Today show appearances.
So, if you have $8 to spare, go try the raindrop cake. It’s good. Or if you’d rather fight the hype machine, go for SenYa’s $5 version or one of Yagi’s beautiful anmitsus. Each is unique, and interesting, and will still make for a good Instagram.