Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Let Me Count the Ways

I don't remember clearly the first time I tried mochi--a chewy, rice-based Japanese foodstuff.  I do remember, though, that I was immediately taken with its smooth texture and squishy-bouncy gumminess.  And let's not forget its charmingly chubby roundness!  Observe:  

mochi ice cream, image from mockingjay.net
Before I decided to try making mochi myself, this is what I always pictured when I thought of mochi.  However, as I recently learned, the darling dumpling is only one of the many shapes of mochi.  Mochi is also cut into squares and nibs, molded into elaborate shapes, folded, and just pulled into uneven pieces.  

assorted mochi, image from flickr.com
ginkgo leaf mochi, image from pinterest.com
kabuto mochi, image from kyotofoodie.com

Moreover, not all mochi is sweetened.  Mochi can be eaten fresh or grilled with soy sauce, dropped into soup just before serving, or mixed with just about any favorite food you'd eat with rice.  Mochi can even be cooked in a waffle iron, producing what some like to call a "moffle."  

mochi with natto, image from justhungry.com

toasted mochi, image from blog.nativefoods.com
The form I first encountered, however, and the one that's still my favorite (although I can by no means say I've tried them all), is the pudgy little ball stuffed with sweet filling--so that's what I decided to try to make.

Small, round, filled mochi are generally called daifuku.  They can be filled with a wide variety of things, from ice cream to pumpkin to sesame paste, but one of the most traditional fillings for daifuku mochi--and one of my favorite flavors in East Asian desserts--is red bean, in the form of a sweetened paste called an or anko.  The mochi itself can also be flavored with jam, extracts, or powders like cocoa or matcha (green tea powder), but I thought I should try my hand at plain mochi before going on to any of the many variations.  Since red bean paste is commonly paired with unflavored mochi, that combination seemed a natural choice for my first attempt.

daifuku mochi with red bean paste, image from globetrotterdiaries.com

Monday, February 11, 2013


Mochi is eaten year round, but it's also a traditional food for the Japanese New Year, so it's especially prevalent around that time.  The traditional mochi making ceremony is called mochitsuki.  The process consists of washing, soaking, and cooking mochi rice (a.k.a. sweet rice) and then pounding it in a giant mortar (usu) with a long wooden hammer (kine). A-like so:

The rice is pounded as soon as it's done cooking, so it's still steaming hot.  The person who folds and turns the mochi between the falls of the kine dunks his or her hands in water to keep the mochi from sticking to them and to keep the mochi moist.  Those who make mochi for a living add some showmanship to the mix:  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Getting Down to Business

rice-pounding in process

Unfortunately, I don't have an usu and a kine.  I do, however, have a smallish-to-medium-sized granite mortar and pestle, so I decided I would use that to make a small batch of hand-pounded mochi from whole rice.  At least one blogger, at justhungry.com, advises that pretty good mochi can also be made from whole rice using a KitchenAid stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, both of which I have.  The result isn't any smoother than hand-pounded mochi, though, and I wanted the experience of making it with my own muscle power, so I opted not to try that method just yet.

I did rely on that blog as a resource, though, drawing in particular on its posts about selecting and preparing rice.  Since I don't have a rice cooker, I also drew from a recipe on seriouseats.com, which outlined how to cook the rice in a steamer basket lined with cheesecloth or muslin.  (Cheesecloth I do have.)

"box" mochi boiler/steamer
                                                                                                In these modern times, mochi is also often made from rice flour (usually Mochiko), which is mixed with sugar and water and then cooked either in a sort of combination steamer/doubleboiler rig or in the microwave.  I decided to try at least one method for making mochi with Mochiko so that I could compare the results to my whole rice mochi.  I selected a recipe I found on YouTube that used the boiling/steaming method.  In the picture at the left, my batch of "box" mochi is merrily clanging around in a stainless steel bowl inside this pot, which also holds just a few inches of boiling water. I put a paper towel in the water underneath the bouncing bowl (propelled by the boil bubbles) to quiet it down a bit.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Results

I made my first batches of whole rice and rice flour mochi semi-concurrently, since both processes involved downtime, so I got to sample the results side by side when they were both fresh.  I wasn't sure what to expect from the whole rice mochi, since I've only ever had commercially produced mochi, which I guessed was probably more like the Mochiko version.  I didn't get all the lumps out of my whole rice mochi, either, and although I'd read that small bits of rice wouldn't be noticeable, I wondered whether I would agree when I tasted it.  

my hand-pounded mochi
To my great pleasure, I found the whole rice mochi to be superior in the ways that mattered most to me.  Its texture was chewy without being sticky, while the rice flour mochi's was gluey; its color was a brighter and more opaque white than the rice flour mochi's; and its flavor was deep and subtly sweet, while the rice flour mochi's was only vaguely reminiscent of rice and tasted clearly of refined sugar.  The only category in which the "box" mochi came out on top was appearance, since my whole rice mochi's surface was pebbled with little rice bits.  
Unfortunately, I was so excited to share my work with my husband that I brought him my smoothest, most beautiful whole rice mochi and let him eat the whole thing before it occurred to me that I should have taken a picture of it, so the photo above doesn't represent my best work.  I likewise failed to take a picture of my disappointing Mochiko mochi before it was devoured, but I decided to try making mochi ice cream with Mochiko, and I did manage to remember to take a picture of that.

my strawberry mochi ice cream
Happily, I thought the Mochiko mochi performed much better in this role.  Frozen, its texture was less sticky, and its taste was much improved by the addition of flavoring and the ratio of ice cream to mochi.  Basically, the mochi was just there to provide a gummy contrast to the ice cream, and it served that purpose just fine.  

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Mo(chi) Must Go On!

I had a great time trying my hand at making mochi--and I plan to keep trying it.  I want to make more hand-pounded mochi when I have the time to put in as much elbow grease as I can muster, to see just how smooth I can make it.  Maybe one day I'll even find an affordable used mochi making machine on ebay (new ones are crazy expensive!) so I can get that wonderful whole rice flavor and a super-fine texture without putting in extended lengths of manual labor.  I think I'd like to try making my own red bean paste, too, and try some other fillings and flavors, like white bean and green tea.  Going into this project, independent of my fondness for mochi, I had a strong interest in Japan, too, so it was great learning more about Japanese food and culture while I was investigating mochi.  I'd love to try making some other Japanese foods and see what I could learn along the way!

Many thanks to the bloggers whose experience guided me, and shout outs to United Noodles (our local wonderland of Asian foods and kitchen items and my supplier for this project) and Cooking with Dog ("It's not what you think..."), my new favorite YouTube channel.

MOCHI SWEETS daifuku, image from www.raindeocampo.com

(the end)