Growing up in the cultural and culinary melting pot that is San Francisco afforded me the opportunity to sample a more diverse array of cuisines than I could ever envision in even the most delicious dreams. Between boba teas, arepas, dosas and more, I had the privilege of meeting mochi, a soft, squishy, perfectly sweet Japanese treat that can be incorporated into a range of dishes that call for some doughy goodness.
What Is Mochi?
"Mochi is a chewy rice cake made from Japanese sweet rice flour — a different grain from the rice we eat," says Wenter Shyu, co-founder and co-owner of Berkeley, California-based Third Culture Bakery, "home of the Original Mochi Muffin," which will soon open additional stores in Colorado and Southern California.
Mochi has traditionally been considered a special addition to celebratory meals at various holidays like the Japanese New Year. While the delicacy is still prepared during festive occasions (like mochitsuki, celebrated by families and communities), mochi has increasingly become integrated into everyday life throughout Japan and all over the world.
"Traditionally, mochi is used in Japanese cooking during new year celebrations in both savory and sweet applications, and also used in Taiwanese and Chinese cooking during Lunar New Year and wedding celebrations too," Shyu says
How Is Mochi Made?
There are two methods for making mochi: One involves steaming and pounding glutinous rice, and the other involves drying this rice into a mochi powder called mochiko or sweet rice flour, then adding water to steam it.
"Mochi gets its stickiness from its high amylopectin level — a component of starch that absorbs water and bursts open when heated," says Shyu's partner, Third Culture Bakery co-owner and co-founder, Sam Butarbutar. "So the more mochi heats up, the stickier it becomes! This stickiness has been traced to a single mutation in rice that farmers have selected over time."
Part of mochi's appeal is its ability to adapt to a variety of dishes, including daifuku, a soft round mochi surrounding red or white bean paste; mochi ice cream; and oshiruko, a sweet dessert soup made with azuki beans.
Is Mochi Healthy?
Despite its ancient roots (it's said to date back to at least Japan's Heian period, which took place from 794-1185), mochi has become an increasingly trendy product in the Western world and has been hailed as a healthy diet staple by some. But can mochi really be considered a health food?
"It's entirely gluten-free so that's a plus!" Shyu says. "And depending on the sweet rice flour used, it could contain lots of vitamins and minerals as a quick energy source."
While some have claimed that mochi's nutrients are so concentrated, a single small ball contains the same amount of calories as one entire bowl of rice, that's not exactly the case. While one bowl of rice contains approximately 240 calories, a mochi ball has about 80-100 calories. While the two aren't nearly equivalent, that's the caloric content of one mochi ball and if you're a big fan of the unique taste and texture, you might just find yourself reaching for several more.
The type of mochi you choose can play a role in the health profile of the food, too. Brown rice mochi is made from a whole grain that's rich in antioxidants like manganese as well as nutrients like potassium and magnesium.
How to Use Mochi
There are tons of different ways to use mochi in the kitchen and opportunities to try it in a spectrum of sweet and savory dishes. The ingredient can be baked, fried, boiled and grilled, and in addition to its more traditional uses, innovators like Shyu and Butarbutar are using it in somewhat unconventional items like muffins, doughnuts and brownies.
"There are so many different varieties of mochi and it can take on hundreds of different forms or finished products, but it's all just sweet rice — it's crazy," Shyu says. "And all of it tastes so different! It's just rice and water but turns into so many different things! Both my partner Sam and I grew up with that tradition of eating mochi during celebrations and so we mix it up by fusing French and Western influences into it like adding butter, baking it to give it a slightly crispy, crunchy texture, but retaining its soft and chewy center — like our signature Mochi Muffin and Butter Mochi doughnuts. We love carrying on the tradition of celebrating with mochi all year round!"