Before I wrote Osaka: 5 Lessons in 10 Photos and In Osaka, When You Ask for Directions, the Locals Won’t Just Point — They Will Walk You to Your Destination (as an afterthought, to be completely honest), my husband, Speedy, asked me how many stories I’ve written about the Japan trip. I told him I had nine — but there was no story about mochi.
“What? But why?” he asked incredulously.
“Because,” I said, “we ate all the mochi I brought home (all five boxes of them in every shape and flavor I could find) before I could take photos (I don’t like blog posts without an accompanying photo).”
It’s true. We ate all the mochi so fast. I didn’t expect that. I thought I was the only one in my family who is in love with mochi and I seriously thought they’d be more interested in the chocolates. How wrong I was! Apparently, they didn’t crave mochi because the quality of mochi we find at home is nowhere near the quality of mochi one gets in Japan. When they got to experience real mochi, they were hooked.
With mochi having become an integral part of our food repertoire, I reconsidered the mochi post. The photo of the mochi and ice cream snack I had in Nara will have to do.
What is mochi, anyway?
Mochi is a sticky rice cake. Made from glutinous rice, the steamed rice is pounded while water is added little by little to make a soft and smooth dough.
(Note: Mochi machines have replaced the laborious pounding but the traditional process remains a revered art form in Japan.)
By itself, mochi is neutral in flavor. It is the addition of sugar, filling or coating that transforms it. So, yes, mochi comes in various shapes, colors and forms, it may have a filling or it may have an outer coating, or it may both (the best one I ever had was coated in black sesame seeds).
Mochi may also be sweet or savory. The frozen rice cakes shaped like small soap bars that you find in the frozen section of Asian groceries are mochi. They are added to soups and dishes with sauce which allow the rice cakes to absorb the flavors of the ingredients they are cooked with.
Mochi in Japanese culture
Like most of Asia, rice figures prominently not only in the Japanese diet but in religious and cultural celebrations as well.
It is a Japanese New Year custom, for instance, to display kagami mochi, a stack of two spherical mochi topped with an orange. The two rice cakes represent the old and new years, while the orange is the symbol of the continuation of family.
But mochi isn’t just for New Year display. Two or three days into the new year, the kagami mochi is cut and added to soup. Because it is also part of tradition for the family to eat the soup together, mochi is eaten by young and old alike. There have been instances of death from choking on mochi so it is advised that the sticky rice cakes be cut into smaller pieces for easy chewing.
“Anyone who can’t chew properly – like children, or the elderly – will be likely to find them hard to eat.
“If not chewed but simply swallowed, the sticky mochi gets stuck in the throat – and can lead to suffocation.
“According to Japanese media, 90% of those rushed to hospital from choking on their new year’s dish are people aged 65 or older.” [Source: Delicious but deadly mochi: The Japanese rice cakes that kill]
Not every sticky cake is mochi
Know, however, that not all sticky rice cakes in Japan is mochi. This is something I learned only after the Japan trip. Some sweets may have “mochi” in their name but may not be real mochi at all. Warabimochi, for example (what I had at Amato Maeda in Namba Parks), is made with flour derived from bracken, a fern.
Mizu manju is made with arrowroot starch.
Mizu yokan is made with agar-agar (a plant-based gelatin).
Dango, labeled a “variation” of mochi and which I so adored in Nara, is made from glutinous rice flour (mochiko) rather than pounded steamed rice grains.
What is it about mochi that’s worth going back to Japan for?
Mochi for me is like discovering a new way to love something I’ve adored since I was a child. Food made with glutinous rice.
Whole grains steamed as a cake and topped or wrapped in fronds and cooked in coconut milk.
Balls made with glutinous rice flour cooked in sweetened coconut milk.
And then, of course, there’s nian gao, the Chinese sticky cake that we slice, dip in egg and fry.
But what makes mochi stand out from all those glutinous rice treats? The colors and variety of flavors, fillings and coatings. But, most especially, it’s the texture. There’s a light springiness that’d hard to describe but can be easily understood if, for instance, you’ve tried both nian gao and mochi. They’re both sticky and chewy, yet, still different from each other.
And then there’s the fact that, unlike nian gao and other Chinese sticky rice snacks, you can eat (cooked) mochi straight from the refrigerator. So long as you wrap it up properly before chilling, mochi does not harden.
Am I serious about going back to Japan for mochi? Yes. There are other reasons, of course, like visiting places in Japan we were not able to cover during the last trip. But mochi is at the center of all those reasons. I want to eat (and bring home) mochi from every region of Japan.
Flights and accommodations have been booked. See you again later this year, Japan!