Homemade mochi (pounded rice) the modern way

Every year around this time, I get a yearning for mochi, that bland, sticky dough made by pounding glutionous or sweet rice into a paste. Mochi (or omochi) is traditionally eaten instead of rice during the New Year holidays (which lasts until the 7th in Japan traditionally), since it can be dried into long-keeping cakes that can be reconstituted easily. Although commercial dried mochi cakes are available at any Japanese grocery store and can't be beat for convenience, freshly made mochi is a very different thing - softer, stickier, with the natural sweetness of the rice coming through.

I have thought off and on about getting a mochi tsuki ki or mochi making machine, for years. These things are available in Japan nowadays for around 10,000 to 25,000 yen. But it would be expensive and heavy to haul one over from Japan, and here in Europe, where rice cookers have only now started to become widely available, mochi machines are not not going to be stocked at my local kitchen-appliance store any time soon. And talk about a single-purpose appliance! A mochi making machine works similarly to a bread machine - in fact, the first bread machines (called "home bakeries" in Japan) were developed based on the kneading action of mochi making machines. But, I don't own a bread machine either, and I am not that eager to get one. Besides, I am not sure of the motor of an average bread machine is strong enough to deal with the strong stickiness of pounded rice. There are combination bread and mochi making machines available in Japan, but they are either expensive or have mediocre reputations. Plus, there's that problem of hauling one over from Japan.

I've tried making mochi in a food processor - once. That didn't work out well. The mochi didn't have time to turn into a sticky, smooth mass before the motor of the food processor overheated. The sticky mass had a tendency to want to climb into the middle of the food processor too.

I even tried making mochi by pounding the grains in a mortar and pestle. That took so long to make a tiny amount, that it wasn't worth it. And again, it was very hard to get the mochi smooth yet sticky/strong enough for my liking.

Sure, I could make a mochi of sorts from mochiko or rice powder. That yields mochi that is very smooth - but, for me, lacking in body, not to mention that freshly cooked sweet-rice taste. Also mochi dango (see mitarashi dango) have a different texture from fresh mochi. Yes, I'm particular.

So my homemade fresh mochi plans lay dormant for years...until recently, when I finally got a KitchenAid stand mixer. I am not anti-appliance per se, but I tend to really procrastinate a lot about introducing new machinery into my kitchen. I was never sure that I could justify the space a stand mixer would take up - could I not knead dough by hand, mix cookie dough in the food processor, beat eggs with my handheld beater? Besides, here in Europe KitchenAid, the brand I wanted, is way more expensive than they are in the U.S. But a couple of months ago, one of my local electronics stores had the KitchenAid Artisan models on sale. I couldn't resist. And so, a sexy white model entered my life. Why did I wait so long? I've named my KitchenAid Agatha, and when my still-in-development kitchen is finally in place, she will occupy pride of place there.

The beauty of a KitchenAid mixer is its super sturdy motor. You can leave it on to mix and knead for far longer than you can a food processor, and it won't overheat. This, I sensed, would be the key to making mochi that was sticky and smooth. And so it was. Making fresh mochi is now so easy that I barely have to think about it. It's easier than kneading bread, almost as easy as mixing up a batch of cookie dough.

Besides a mixer, having a rice cooker will make the whole process even easier. (I always thought that mochi rice had to be steamed, so discovering that it could be made in a rice cooker with no fuss was a revelation too.) If you do, and you have some sweet or glutinous rice on hand, you could have freshly made mochi in 2 hours from now.

Recipe: Fresh mochi with a food processor and rice cooker

This makes enough fresh mochi to feed at least 4 people, if not more.

  • 3 rice-cooker cups short grain, sweet or glutinous rice or mochi rice. To make this as clear as possible: You cannot use regular Japanese rice (aka 'sushi' rice), long grain rice, basmati rice, arborio rice, etc. You must use short grain or mochi rice. (See Looking At Rice.)
  • 3 rice-cooker cups water
  • Toppings of your choice - see below

Equipment suggested: A food/stand mixer such as a KitchenAid with a sturdy motor, a rice cooker, a fine-mesh sieve or colander

Wash the rice a few times (see Japanese rice basics for the method) in several changes of water. Leave to drain for at least half an hour in a sieve or colander.

Put the rice in the bowl of a rice cooker with the 3 cups of water. (Note that the rice to water ratio is 1:1, which differs from the ratio recommended for regular Japonica rice.) Set your rice cooker to cook the rice in one hour, if it has a timer. If it doesn't have a timer, let the rice soak in the water for about half an hour before switching the cooker on.

When the rice is cooked, put it in the bowl of your mixer while it's still hot with the dough hook attached. It's important to start the kneading/beating while the rice is still hot for maximum stickiness and smoothness. Cool grains turn a bit hard.

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Keep kneading. I start out at the low speed, switch up to the high speed for a minute or two, then drop it down to mid-speed Most of the kneading is done at mid-speed, with a few bursts of high-speed thrown in.

Here is how it looks about 10 minutes in. It's already pretty smooth, though there is still some graininess.

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After 20 minutes, the mochi is almost totally smooth. At this point the mochi has cooled down quite a bit, and kneading further doesn't really get rid of the residual slight graininess. But no matter - when you eat it you will barely notice the grains. (I suppose that re-heating the mochi and re-kneading it might work, but it's not worth the bother for me.)

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Wet your clean hands and pull small bits off the mochi mass to make balls. Here are a few mochi balls made from the freshly kneaded mochi. Smooth enough I think!

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If you want to keep the mochi for later use, put the mochi dough on a large piece of plastic wrap (just pouring it out stickily from the bowl should work). Wrap the mochi up with the wrap if you want to keep it soft. Alternatively, put the mochi dough on a surface covered with cornstarch or potato starch, cover with a dusting of more of the same, and leave to dry out a bit - a day should do it. Cut it into portions with a sharp knife, and wrap each portion with plastic wrap.

If you want to use fresh mochi in your New Years ozoni or ozouni soup, just drop the soft balls into the soup a couple of minutes before serving, so that they heat through. Don't cook them longer than that or they will just melt into the soup!

Fresh mochi can also be used to make moffles - just plop the dough onto the waffle iron. When the surface cooks and crisps, the dough won't stick to the iron.

Alternate way of cooking the rice, if you don't have a rice cooker: steaming

Steaming mochi rice is the traditional way of cooking it, but it takes a lot longer. After rinsing the rice, put it in a bowl with plenty of water, and leave for several hours or over night. When you're ready to cook it, drain off the water, line your steamer with a clean piece of cheesecloth or a cotton or linen kitchen towel, and spread the rice on it evenly. Steam the rice for 40 minutes until the grains are cooked through.

My favorite ways of eating freshly made mochi

I don't try to make more mochi than will be consumed in one sitting, since it's really best when it's fresh. The best way to deal with fresh mochi is to make whatever you plan to mix with the mochi beforehand ready in a bowl or plate, and to dump the mochi balls you pull off the dough mass with wet hands directly onto that.

Here's one of my favorite ways to eat fresh mochi: with mounds of grated daikon radish and a little soy sauce. The sharp freshness of the daikon radish counteracts the stickiness of the mochi perfectly, and also makes it easier to digest (or so they say).

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Here's my other favorite way: with natto! I chop up some green onion, mix with natto and soy sauce, and drop the mochi balls on that and mix. The sliminess of the natto goes so well with the slimy-stickiness of the mochi.

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Here's my third favorite way to eat fresh mochi: with kinako (roasted soy bean flour) and sugar. The ratio of kinako to sugar is entirely up to you - I prefer a 2:1 kinako to sugar mix, some prefer a 1:1 ratio. Alternatively, try unsweetened kinako and molasses - or if you're in the UK, black treacle. Either sugar syrup is a good stand in for kuromitsu, which is a syrup made from dark brown unrefined sugar.

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You can also mix in things into fresh mochi dough itself. Just add whatever you want to mix in during the final minutes of the kneading process. Some things to try: ground up sesame seed, ground up toasted walnuts or other nuts. A traditional additive to mochi is yomogi, a kind of bitter green wild herb. In Japan you can even get dessicated yomogi powder. The mochi in the kinako mochi photo above has some yomogi powder mixed in.

Pounding mochi in harmony

When I was little, and the whole clan gathered at my grandparents' house in Saitama for New Years, I remember my Aunt Chieko and Uncle Isao hauling out the usu (large wooden mortar) and kine (wooden hammer-shaped pestle) for mochitsuki - pounding mochi. My uncle would beat down on the rice with the kine, and in between his poundings my aunt, crouched next to the usu, would deftly turn the rice over with her bare hands. If she hesitated or lost the rhythm, her hands could have been crushed by the heavy hammerhead of the kine. But nothing ever went wrong - they worked together in perfect harmony.

Looking back, my aunt and uncle's mochitsuki concert seems like a reflection of their marriage. Neither of them had an easy life - my aunt was orphaned at a young age and was brought up by relatives, and my uncle had to take over the family business when his older brother bailed. Yet, I never ever saw them fight or even have tension between them, even when I lived with them for a couple of months when I was 16. This was such a refreshing contrast from the constant strife my parents had at home, leading to divorce a couple of years later. I guess it helped that my uncle was a man of few words, who let my strong-willed, hard working and always upbeat aunt run the household as she wished. And she did just that, especially after my grandparents passed away.

This New Year will be the first one they will be apart in decades, since Uncle Isao passed away this earlier this year. I rather like to think of him sitting wherever he now, relaxing in his long underwear, with a haramaki (knitted tummy warmer) around his middle, chuckling quietly while sipping on a cool beer.

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