Mochi coup – how a Japanese ultra-snack went global
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Japan has known about the delights of mochi for more than a thousand years. But these little steamed rice flour bites managed to remain a niche treat only to be found elsewhere in the world in specialist food shops until recently. What has happened since has gone from a buzz to a craze.
“There’s something about the texture that people love,” says Jason Le, co-founder of US-based mochi donut shop Dochi. “It’s soft, sticky, chewy and gooey.”
Mochi refers to the rice flour that is steamed and used for various foods: the most famous is the daifuku mochi with the sweet filling. But there’s also ozoni, the mochi made into small balls to eat in a miso soup. And dango, mochi-like balls spiked on skewers and dipped in sauce.
“Mochi is really bubbling up now,” says Mathilda Motte, founder of high-end Parisian mochi shop La Maison du Mochi. “In France, we’re seeing shops open in Aix, Lille, Bordeaux and Paris.”
Traditional Japanese fillings include matcha, sesame, yuzu, taro and red bean, but so far western audiences have gravitated towards sweeter takes: ice-cream versions, donuts, cookies, even cannabis-infused candy. “The taro or red bean flavours are very specific, they’re not so sweet and often not welcomed by the western palate,” says Arthur Saada, founder of French mochi ice-cream brand Exquis Mochi.
“We decided to go with flavours we know people like,” agrees Russell Barnett, the managing director of American mochi ice-cream company My/Mochi Ice Cream. Barnett’s ice-creams, a bite-sized scoop wrapped in a sweet rice dough, have catered to America since 2017. Cookies and cream, double chocolate, s’mores, strawberry and mango are among his clientele’s favourites. My/Mochi’s factory produces around 550 mochi ice-cream balls a minute, gauges Barnett.
The mochi texture has also been adapted into other desserts. Dochi’s Jason Le sells donut rings made with mochi and coated with matcha Oreo, cookies and cream, Twix and M&Ms. “We like to include ideas from anywhere,” he says. Such western adaptations have at times drawn the ire of purists. “I got a call from someone once asking if I was Japanese, or if anyone on my team was,” says Motte, “but I don’t pretend to be. Mine is a French version of the Japanese mochi.”
Mochi’s gel-like texture isn’t to everybody’s taste and it can be a choking hazard if steamed inappropriately or eaten too quickly. “It’s an unusual texture, it takes some getting used to,” admits Vivien Wong, co-founder of UK-based mochi ice-cream Little Moons. “But there’s a culture shift. People are increasingly accepting the mochi texture. It’s like sushi. In the 1990s, people thought it was weird to eat raw fish.”
In California, a group of four Asian-American entrepreneurs behind the clothing retailer Sundae School found a way to bring tradition and originality together by launching cannabis-infused lychee, dragon fruit and yuzu-flavoured mochi gummies.
“Why not play with the texture and pack all that flavour in a gummy that’s no bigger than the size of a quarter?” asks the brand’s co-founder Dae Lim, who adds that mochi is vegan and calorie-friendly, key elements for his target audience.
Lim’s 250,000 edibles sold out in a week. The company plans to branch out to New York City and beyond with a CBD option soon. “People are really going for it,” he says.