Mochi has become so popular in recent years that almost everyone outside of Japan knows what it is. However, a lot of foreigners only have a fleeting sense of familiarity when it comes to the chewy, dough-like Japanese snack. For example, although it is often served as a dessert due to its sweetness, it is also present in several savory meals, particularly noodle and soup dishes, in Japan. Another little-known fact about mochi is that it is actually a vegetarian snack.
What is Mochi?
Mochi is basically a rice cake made from short-grain japonica glutinous rice called mochigome. Compared to other short-grain rice, mochigome has a higher concentration of protein and an almost negligible amount of amylose, making it have a gel-like consistency. Mochigome is pounded repeatedly to make a paste, which is then molded into a certain shape. The end result is a mixture of starch grains, air bubbles, and amylopectin gel – the main components of mochi. This traditional method of making mochi is known as mochitsuki in Japan.
The origin of mochi is still unknown up to this day. It is believed that the very first mochitsuki transpired during the Yayoi Period when rice cultivation was developed in Yamato and kamis (Shinto gods) descended to Earth. As such, mochi, which was originally made using red rice, was associated with good fortune and exclusively eaten by the nobles and the Emperor. By the Heian Period, mochi was referred to as food for the gods and was used as offerings in Shinto ceremonies and rituals. Mochi also served as talismans for happy and successful marriages.
The first records of mochi playing a role in New Year celebrations and festivities also date back to the same period. Many nobles believed that long strands of mochi represented well-being and a long life. Dried mochi was also well received as they believed eating it would make one’s teeth stronger and tougher.
Today, the tradition of eating mochi around or on New Year is still being practiced in Japan. Mochi is abundantly sold and consumed during this time but is also available on other days of the year.
Kagami Mochi (Japanese New Year Mochi)
Kagami mochi, meaning mirror rice cake, is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration that is placed on altars every December 28. It is composed of two spherical mochi pieces, the smaller piece stacked on top of the other, and topped with a bitter orange called daidai. Come the 2nd Saturday or Sunday of January, the kagami mochi is broken and eaten as part of a Shinto ceremony known as kagami biraki, meaning mirror opening.
The ritual was supposedly started by the 4th Tokugawa Shogun before heading to battle as a way to bless his army with success and good luck. After achieving victory, kagami biraki became a common practice among samurais, martial art schools, weddings, and other celebratory events. The mochi pieces are believed to represent various things such as the human spirit and heart, the moon and the sun, and the years that have gone and are yet to come. The daidai, which means generations, symbolizes the continuation of the family.
Although mochi is usually homemade, many families just buy ready-made kagami mochis at groceries or specialty stores. By the time the kagami mochi must be broken, it is often already quite brittle and features a few cracks on its surface. Using a knife to cut it into smaller pieces is frowned upon as it represents ties being cut off. Instead, a hammer or one’s hand is used to break it.
Japanese Mochi Ice Cream
One of the most popular kinds of mochi is the Japanese Mochi Ice Cream. The very first product of this kind was sold in 1981 and was called Yukimi Daifuku; yukimi meaning snow viewing. By the 1990s, different variations of mochi ice cream spread across Japan. The popularity of mochi ice cream continues to grow up to this day.
However, mochi ice cream actually does not make use of real mochi. Traditionally made mochi from rice becomes rock hard when exposed to freezing temperatures. As such, the mochi used to wrap ice cream balls makes use of mochiko flour, instead. Although mochiko also comes from the same sticky Japanese rice, the resulting mochi is often softer and less chewy than traditional mochi.
Japanese Mochi Ice Cream is available in almost every convenience store, grocery, dessert shop, café, and restaurants in Japan and comes in a wide variety of flavors. It is sold and consumed in abundance during the summer, which goes on from June to August. The dessert is also widely available outside of Japan.
Japanese Mochi Candy, Variants, and Flavors
Many Japanese traditional sweets make use of mochi in combination with a sweet filling, beans, and other flavors. Some of the most popular kinds are:
Daifuku is a soft, round piece of mochi filled with a white bean or red bean paste. It is often sized to fit one’s palm but can also come in bite-sized pieces. To prevent it from sticking to surfaces, it is often dusted with confectioner’s sugar, potato starch, or other similar powders. Daifuku also has many varieties such as yomogi daifuku (green mochi), mame daifuku (has whole beans), ichigo daifuku (filled with a whole strawberry), and toasted daifuku. Many supermarkets, cafes, dessert shops, and temples sell daifuku in Japan.
Kusamochi literally means grass rice cake. It is flavored using yomogi, a Japanese wild plant that gives the mochi a refreshing taste and green color. Tiny bits of the yomogi leaves can usually be seen in the mochi.
- Kinako Mochi
Kinako mochi is another type of mochi often eaten around the New Year. It is a toasted piece of mochi topped or dusted with kinako (roasted soybean flour) and sugar.
- Warabi Mochi
Warabi Mochi does not actually contain rice but is still considered as a variant of mochi for its chewy consistency. It is basically a jelly dessert made using bracken starch and is often topped off with kinako.
Hishimochi is a popular dessert eaten on Hina Matsuri, or Girls Day (every 3rd of March). Hina Matsuri is a day dedicated to wishing good health and success to girls younger than 21 years old. The dessert comes in a rhomboid shape and consists of three differently colored mochi layers, usually green, white, and red.
Sakuramochi makes use of cherry blossoms for flavoring and color. It typically has a red bean paste filling and features a pickled cherry leaf wrapped around it. The mochi comes in two varieties – Osaka-style and Tokyo-style. The former makes use of coarse rice flour, resulting in a thick consistency similar to rice pudding, while the latter makes use of a finer grain, resulting in a smooth texture. Sakuramochi is especially popular during Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season which goes on from February to May.
- Hanabira mochi
Hanabira mochi means flower petal mochi. It is usually eaten around New Year and is present in the 1st tea ceremonies for the year. The food consists of an inner red mochi and an outer, translucent white mochi. It comes in a petal shape similar to that of a Japanese plum blossom and is usually filled with sweet red bean paste.
Japanese Mochi in Soup Dishes
Oshiruko is a traditional dessert that comes in the form of a sweet soup. It consists of boiled and crushed azuki beans (red mung beans) and mochi pieces. The dessert is quite popular among the locals, especially during winter.
- Chikara Udon
Chikara Udon, which means power udon, is a Japanese noodle soup dish that has toasted mochi pieces as toppings. It is highly recommended for those looking for a warm and incredibly filling meal.
Zoni consists of mochi and vegetables. It was originally a meal only samurais could eat but soon became available to the public. Today, it is often eaten on New Year’s Day and is among the most auspicious Japanese dishes.
Japanese Mochi Making and Pounding at Nakatanidou
Given the popularity of mochi in Japan, tourists will not have a hard time finding it regardless of which city they will be staying in. However, there is a certain place that is highly recommended for visitors to witness mochitsuki and eat freshly made mochi by Japan’s fastest mochi pounders – Nakatanidou.
Nakatanidou is a popular mochi store located in Nara City. They specialize in making yomogi mochi, a type of mochi made with the same Japanese wild plant used to make Kusa Mochi. The shop is daily flocked by crowds of locals and foreigners looking to give a quick hi or hello to the owner of the store and, of course, to witness the dramatic display of mochitsuki.
A wooden mortar is located at the front of the store and practically serves as the main stage. Once a massive mound of green glutinous rice is tossed in the mortar, the store’s skilled pounders get ready to perform the process with their large mallet-like pestles in hand.
The continuous and rapid pounding done by Nakatanidou’s experienced workers are incredibly precise. Each swing of the pestle is accompanied with a shout, making the experience all the more lively. Everything seems like a blur of motion and makes for a spectacular show.
But, of course, entertainment is not their only goal. The resulting mochi from the action-packed mochitsuki is unbelievably soft and chewy. This is then dusted with kinako, or roasted soybean flour, and filled with a generous amount of red bean paste by hand. Each piece is sold to the public at around 130 yen, which is a more than fair price to pay for a visual and gastronomical experience.
Must-Visit Places in Tokyo for Mochi Desserts
As previously mentioned, mochi is available in numerous groceries, stalls, cafes, and restaurants. However, not all of these establishments serve traditionally made mochi. For those planning a trip to Tokyo, these places should be visited for authentic mochi desserts and dishes:
- Gion Tokuya
Located in Harajuku, Gion Tokuya provides a classy dining experience for those looking to eat elegant Japanese desserts. Each ingredient they use is guaranteed to be of the highest quality. Their specialty is known as Hanami Komochi, which is a set of eight plain mochi piece that customers can grill on their tables. The set comes with five other ingredients that can be used as flavoring or seasoning for the mochi. Their sweet bean soups, jelly desserts, and shaved ice desserts are also highly recommended.
Kuuya is famous for their monaka, a Japanese snack that consists of azuki bean filling squeezed between two mochi flour wafers. Although a lot of other stores also sell monaka, Kuuya is quite popular among the locals for its more than 130 years of experience in the food industry.
- Michikusa Mochi
Tokyo Solamachi Mall houses a specialty store located on the ground floor called Michikusa Mochi. They sell a variety of mochi on sticks. Some of their bestsellers include Aburi Mochi (mochi that is grilled and served with a thick sauce), Michi Kusa Mochi (green mochi with a red bean paste filling), and Dengaku Warabi Mochi (jelly mochi dusted with kinako).
For those looking for mame daifuku, Mizuho is among Tokyo’s stores that specialize in making the mochi snack. Their mame daifuku is so sought after by locals and tourists that they run out of stock by the afternoon.
Seigetsudo has been making traditional Japanese sweets since 1907. Their bestseller is the Goma Mochi, which comes in bite-sized pieces of mochi filled with azuki bean and black sesame. They have various stalls scattered across Tokyo including Tokyo Station Ichibangai, Daimaru Tokyo, and Shibuya Mark City. Their main store is located in Ginza.
For seasonal Japanese sweets, a visit to Shiono is an absolute must. Besides being delicious, their products are incredibly intricate and look like pieces of art. Their autumn (September to November) items are particularly stunning. Mochi desserts are available throughout the year, their mame daifuku being their bestseller.
Basic Yaki Mochi (Grilled Japanese Mochi Cake) Recipe
Making mochi at home is actually quite easy especially if mochiko flour is used. It can be done in less than 30 minutes and can be served plain or with a sweet filling. For a simple and rustic mochi snack, the yaki mochi, or grilled Japanese mochi cake, is highly recommended. The basic recipe below provides a simple step by step guide for making mochi and grilling it to make yaki mochi.
- 1 cup mochiko flour
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Combine and mix the mochiko flour and sugar in a microwaveable dish or bowl.
- Add and thoroughly mix in the water.
- Cover the dish or bowl with plastic wrap and microwave for 4-5 minutes on high.
- Remove the plastic wrap and let the mochi cool for a few minutes.
- Mold or cut the mochi into rectangular pieces and place on cellophane.
- Coat grill pan with oil or a non-stick cooking spray and place over a medium to high heat.
- Place the mochi pieces on the grill and let cook for 8-10 minutes or until the mochi puffs up and carries a nice toasted, brown color.
- Serve plain or with soy sauce, kinako, sugar, sweet red bean paste, or chili on the side.