Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Pass the Mochi

Taeko Nagai was born on New Year’s Day in Miyazaki, Japan in 1937. She moved to Ohio in 1973 with her three young sons when her husband relocated for work. In 1974, she met my grandmother Setsuko at a Japanese club and the two became very close. It was Taeko-San who taught me how to make mochi and daifuku when I was ten, just as she had been taught when she was a young girl in Japan.

When others ask me if I know any Japanese recipes, this memory always stands out: Mochi – what I so delicately describe as the time-honored tradition of beating the @#$* out of cooked rice until smooth. It’s the image of this shy, sweet woman beating rice with a strength and ferocity I would not have expected from outward appearances that first comes to mind. Taeko-San, as my beloved late grandmother called her, is a kind and lovely human who always shares with others with so much love. Even today, as I sat in her kitchen laughing over the story I am sharing with you now, she made sure to send me home with a very rare Japanese tea that I know is not found in the U.S. She hugged me just as she did when I was a little girl and she sent me with daifuku to share with my family. I’m fairly certain that only my winsome yet mischievous grandma enjoyed the treat, as she taught me to “always save the best snacks for yourself.”

In Japan, mochi is traditionally made in a ceremony called mochitsuki. While also eaten year-round, mochi is a traditional food for the Japanese New Year and is commonly sold and eaten during that time. It is made from a whole rice called mochigome that is extremely high in gluten. In the recipe, there is no substitute for this rice, but it can easily be found in your neighborhood Asian markets, such as Tensuke Market. The traditional mochi-pounding ceremony Mochitsuki begins with the rice soaked overnight, steamed, and then beaten with large mallets called kine in tree-trunk-sized mortars called usu.

The only way I knew to eat mochi was the way I often see it sold commercially: filled with a sweetened adzuki bean paste called anko and dusted with potato starch. This version of mochi is daifuku, literally translating to “great luck”. Mochi are very popular in Japan and, over time, production methods have changed to keep up with the demand.

With the lovely memory of Taeko-San in my mind’s eye, I wanted to teach my young friends Elly & Abby the joys of mochi making in the very same way she taught me, carrying on that sense of tradition. However, in teaching a new generation I planned to also teach them a faster method that required less effort, and hopefully less mess for their parents. Abby had never had mochi before this experience, while Elly loves it and is very familiar with many Japanese exports – anime, Japanese meals, and many versions of commercially-made daifuku.

Unfortunately, like many of your favorite family recipes, there is no substitute for made from scratch – ever – and mochi is no different. I prepared anko filling, showing them the red adzuki beans that we would soak for many hours before cooking to make the sweet paste. Thanks to modern technology, the long ceremony has become a shorter event. Many in Japan have machines that have been created for the sole purpose of steaming and grinding the mochi into a round ball of dough – think a bread maker in which you just add raw grains. These are expensive, hard to find in the U.S., and unless you plan on making mochi regularly instead of traditionally on New Year’s, this method is not for you.

The next most authentic way I could think to make mochi was to steam the mochitsuki rice using my beloved rice cooker. Every household in my family owns a rice cooker, as we eat rice so often and it’s convenience makes it extremely practical: add rice and water, close the lid and set it to steam. It shuts itself off. For this demonstration I am using my late grandmother’s rice cooker. If you buy a good one, like those made by company Zojirushi, they will last forever … much like my other weapon of choice, a KitchenAid Mixer. You may also use a food processor, but I love the control that the KitchenAid mixer gives, especially when beating rice until smooth. It’s important to add the rice and begin beating it immediately after steaming it, or the rice becomes stiff and difficult to work with.

I didn’t want to take all the fun out of it with gadgets for my young sous-chefs, so donning aprons, as I knew what a mess we were about to create in the kitchen, I scooped a mound of gooey, almost cake batter consistency onto each of the girls work surfaces – cutting boards covered with parchment paper and dusted in potato starch (cornstarch may be substituted). I handed one a wooden kitchen mallet to represent the giant mallets used, and the other a large wide wooden spoon because honestly, who has many large wooden mallets lying around? They gleefully pounded the mounds of rice – Bang! Bang! Bam! It stuck to their instruments, starch caked onto their aprons, faces, and pretty much everywhere except the mochi.

We added more starch and they used their hands and a rolling pin to flatten it. While they did this, I mashed the now-cooked adzuki beans with a potato masher and added sugar to finish the chunky paste.  Elly helped me by scooping small mounds with a melon baller and forming round balls of filling that we cooled in the refrigerator until the rest of the mochi was ready. After we had sufficiently conquered mochi, I helped the girls place a ball of cooled filling in the center, and then showed them how to fold the corners like a parcel pinching the seams and rolling evenly.

They enjoyed making it, and I enjoyed teaching them, but their patience was coming to an end. I grabbed the large kitchen knife and sliced the sphere in half to both slightly flatten it and to expose the filling. Abby had her first taste of this traditional treat, and liked it so much she took the rest of her treasure with her. Elly devoured hers with a love and pure joy that I have seen on the faces of many who love mochi and daifuku, which I believe has at least two new devotees. Luckily for them, there are even easier methods to make mochi with only a microwave, Mochiko rice flour and pre-made anko paste is readily available at Asian markets. I have included a simple (and quick) way to make mochi for yourselves and/or loved ones at New Year’s or any time your inner child desires. Enjoy!

Fast and Easy Homemade Mochi

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup Mochiko ( rice) flour

1-2 tbsp. Sugar

Mix ingredients in glass microwave safe bowl. It will be liquid in this stage. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and cook on high for 2 minutes.The previously liquid mixture should be softly solid, gently stir and pour out onto a board prepared with potato starch or cornstarch. Roll the mochi dough with a rolling pin like sugar cookie dough, and cut into small squares for immediate use/eating, or scoop pre-made anko paste into small 1 inch balls and cut the rolled out mochi with 9 cm round cookie cutter and seal the edges of one circle around one ball to make daifuku mochi. If you want to use the mochi at a later date, form mixture into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap to either freeze or refrigerate.