A brief history of mochi and how to cook with it

In a world where carbs have become the enemy, Japan has remained largely untouched by anti-carb sentiments. Given that the Japanese word ‘gohan’ is used for both ‘meal’ and ‘rice’ interchangeably, it’s hard to imagine Japan’s status as a carb stronghold is in danger of disappearing anytime soon.

One of the country’s favorite ways to enjoy rice in all its starchy glory is mochi, a glutinous rice cake that has the caloric equivalent of a small bowl of rice packed into a matchbox-sized morsel.

Mochi dessertMochi dessert — Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

Mochi has a long and storied role in Japanese cuisine. After making its first appearance over 2,000 years ago, with the introduction of rice cultivation from Southeast Asia during the Heian period (794-1185), it became an integral part of religious and cultural celebrations and was elevated to sacred status. It’s still held in auspicious regard (by all except the highly unlucky few who, each year, have been subject to hospitalization and even death when sticky mochi became lodged in their esophagus).

During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), mochi made its way into tea ceremonies as the sweet eaten with green tea. When food was rationed in the Age of Warring States (a.k.a. the Sengoku period), mochi became a staple as a quick and easy source of calories and nutrition.

These days, mochi can be served as a sweet snack of its own or as an ingredient in a wide variety of sweet and savory dishes. You probably know the version that’s eaten as a sweet and comprises small, soft domes, which may be filled with paste, custard or ice cream.

This version of mochi is traditionally made with mochiko, a glutinous rice flour, or glutinous rice that is steamed then furiously pounded into a sticky mass by two people using a wooden mallet and mortar. These days, commercial or home mochi-making machines are becoming increasingly common.

But this sticky mass can also be dried and used as an ingredient at a later stage. Kirimochi (cut mochi), as it’s called, comes in slabs that look like small soap bars. When subjected to heat, kirimochi turns chewy and flavor-neutral, with a texture similar to melted mozzarella.

KirimochiKirimochi — Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

If it’s grilled or baked, the outside will become extremely crispy. This profile fits Japan’s love of textural contrasts – ingredients such as kanten (agar agar) jelly and konnyaku (yam) are used in dishes not because they bring a lot in the way of flavor, but because of their unique gelatinous textures. It’s in this dried form that mochi makes some of its more varied appearances.

One of the more popular traditional applications of kirimochi is isobe yaki. This izakaya staple features a baked mochi cake that’s basted with soy sauce, wrapped in a toasted sheet of nori and eaten with dinner. Another common application is grilling mochi then adding it to soups, in particular, the traditional New Year’s soup ozoni, and a soup made of crushed adzuki beans, shiruko.

Ozoni with mochiOzoni with mochi — Photo courtesy of iStock / yasuhiroamano

Agemochi is kirimochi cut into squares and deep-fried so that they puff up and taste similar to chewy popcorn. Chikara udon is a dish consisting of thick, chewy udon noodles in an umami-rich dashi stock topped with grilled mochi.

Cooking with mochi

The Japanese are also experts at unconventional pairings – coffee with tonic water, beer with tomato juice, pasta with bonito flakes – and chefs get equally creative with mochi. In Japan, you’ll find a boiled wedge of kirimochi added to a bowl of soup, or a slice of melted kirimochi on top of a sandwich or burger.

You too can harness the textural wonder that is mochi in your cooking with the following popular creative applications.

Bacon-wrapped mochiBacon-wrapped mochi — Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

Bacon mochi: Wrap a kirimochi slice in bacon, then skewer and grill it. Bacon mochi is a popular item at yakitori restaurants and yatai (street stall vendors) in Japan.

Mochi waffles: Fill your waffle iron with a kirimochi square instead of batter, then serve it with the usual waffle accompaniments.

Mochi lasagna: Replace the pasta sheets with thinly-sliced kirimochi for an oozy texture.

Mochi pizza: Kirimochi can be softened in the microwave to a dough-like consistency, then shaped into a disc and cooked in a frying pan for a chewy and crispy base. The Japanese like to top it with olive oil, wasabi and raw tuna, but you can basically add whatever you want to your mochi base.

Mochi gratinMochi gratin — Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

Mochi gratin: Use chunks of kirimochi in place of, or in addition to, potato in a creamy gratin.

Mochi pastries: Brush kirimochi with salad oil, bake it in a toaster oven, then top it with a wedge of butter, some cinnamon and honey, and serve it with coffee. Or, for a sweet and salty version, top it with butter, soy sauce and a little sugar.

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