Mochi Mochi Nippon! All You Need to Know about Japan’s Ubiquitous Rice Cakes

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On May 16, 2018
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Mochi with sesame Japanese dessert.

If you visit Japan, you’re sure to come across mochi (sticky rice cake) in some form or other. This soft, chewy snack can be found in pretty much every supermarket and convenience store in the country, as well as more upmarket versions in specialist sweets shops. It’s staple nosh at most Japanese festivals and used as a food for special occasions.

What is it?

Simply put, mochi is a sticky rice cake. Its main ingredient is a special type of rice known as mochigome (short-grain, glutinous rice). This is what gives mochi its unique gooey texture. First the rice is soaked overnight and steamed, then it’s pounded until it forms a dough.

Although nowadays this can be done with machines, the traditional method — still practiced today — is to use kine, or wood mallets, in a wooden mortar (called an usu). It’s a two-person job, with one wielding the mallet and the other adding water and turning the mixture by hand.

This method is known as mochitsuki and can be quite the spectacle. The two participants have to keep perfectly in time with each other in order to avoid injuring the hands of the person doing the mixing.

If you fancy seeing mochitsuki in action, head to the Nakatanidou mochi shop in Nara City. Said to be the home of the nation’s fastest mochi pounders, they entertain the crowd outside their shop daily with dramatic performances and breathtaking skills.

Variations on a theme

Ichigo (strawberry) daifuku, a Japanese confection stuffed with sweetened red bean and a whole fresh strawberry.

Ichigo (strawberry) daifuku, a Japanese confection stuffed with sweetened red bean and a whole fresh strawberry.

Once this process is complete, a host of different flavors and fillings can be added to make a seemingly endless variety of mochi.

The most common filling is a sweet bean paste made from either anko (sweet red bean paste) or shiroan (sweet white bean paste). There are two main types of anko: koshian, which is passed through a sieve to make it smooth, and tsubuan, which retains some of the chunky texture of the beans.

… a host of different flavors and fillings can be added to make a seemingly endless variety of mochi.

Mochi made with this sweet bean filling is known as daifuku, which literally translates as “great fortune.” A multitude of different flavors and ingredients can be added to the rice mix or the filling to create different varieties of daifuku. One of the most popular is the ichigo (strawberry) daifuku that contains an entire strawberry beneath its chewy exterior.

Other well-known varieties of mochi include:

  • Kusa (grass) mochi, made using yomogi, or Japanese mugwort.
  • Yomogi daifuku, which is kusa mochi with an anko filling — this is the specialty at Nakatanidou!
  • Warabi mochi, a unique jelly-like variation made using bracken starch. It comes cut up into squares and is usually coated in kinako (roasted and sweetened soybean flour).
  • Botamochi, also called ohagi, which you could describe as “inside-out” mochi. The rice cake is the filling, and it’s coated with either anko, kinako or goma  (sesame).

Seasonal specialties

As well as these common types of mochi, there are also several varieties that you can only find at certain times of the year. Some of the most popular include:

  • Kagami mochi: translated as “mirror mochi,” this special two- or sometimes three-tiered rice cake is a traditional Japanese New Year decoration that is eaten at the beginning of January.
  • Sakura (cherry blossom) mochi: it should come as no surprise that there are cherry blossom-flavored mochi! These springtime treats come in different regional styles, but one of the most common is a round, pink mochi filled with anko and wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf.
  • Hishi (diamond shape) mochi: a sweet associated with Girl’s Day (March 3), it consists of three layers made up of pink, white and green mochi.
  • Kashiwa (oak) mochi: a style connected with Children’s Day (May 5), it comes wrapped in an oak leaf

Regional varieties

Newly cooked umegae mochi in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture.

Freshly cooked umegae mochi in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture.

As well as seasonal types of mochi, different regions of Japan also have their own special varieties — some of which you won’t find anywhere else. Here are a few to keep an eye out for:

  • Aburimochi: This takes its name from the verb aburu, which means “to toast or grill” and can be found in two ancient tea houses outside Kyoto City’s Imamiya shrine. Cut into bite-sized pieces, the mochi is grilled over charcoal, dusted with kinako and served covered in a delicious white miso sauce.
  • Umegae mochi: Although the name comes from the word ume, meaning plum, umegae mochi is not actually plum flavored! Found in Fukuoka Prefecture — particularly in Dazaifu — it’s a grilled, anko-filled mochi imprinted with an image of the ume flower. The crispy outside combines with the melty inside to create the perfect texture!
  • Gohei mochi: Found in Nagano and Gifu prefectures, this variety is made from normal white rice as opposed to the glutinous mochigome, giving it a slightly different texture. It’s also larger than normal mochi and served hot on a flat stick.
  • Akafuku mochi: Sold near Mie Prefecture’s Ise shrine, these delicate mochi are made with the anko on the outside. The paste is hand-sculpted into a wave-like shape, which represents the Isuzu River that flows through the region.

Mochigome gives mochi it’s unique chewy texture.

And finally, a word of caution! You may have heard in the news, normally around January when mochi is most commonly eaten, that this seemingly-innocuous snack is actually responsible for several deaths each year. This is as a result of its sticky consistency, which some people — mostly children and the elderly — find hard to eat. If not chewed properly, it can get stuck in the throat and cause suffocation. So please enjoy your mochi treats responsibly!

What’s your favorite variety of mochi? Let us know in the comments!

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Kansai-based British writer with a love of cats, Japan and all things "kawaii."

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