Restaurants / Literally, mochi is a beaten rice cake. Culturally, it’s respectful fare, made fresh for the New Year. To achieve the requisite silky and chewy texture, rice grains must be thrashed into submission using mochitsuki, a Japanese hand-pounding method dating back to the 8th century.
Sweet & Savory
Japanese mochi is most associated with the sweet palate, as filled, stuffed or colored desserts. Probably the most recognizable form here in Hawaii is chi chi dango–bright, neon pink and green stripes of powdered mochi. Sold at Longs and most supermarkets, chi chi dango is comparatively more expensive than when made at home. Making this mochi (the shortcut way) mostly calls for a box of mochiko (finely milled sweet rice) flour and sugar, and can even be “cooked” in the magic microwave.
However, there are establishments that still prepare chi chi dango the classic way: starting from whole rice grains. Every New Year’s, Fujiya Limited metamorphoses batches of glutinous rice into chi chi dango. They are sold by the pound, wrapped ($7.80 for 18 pieces) or unwrapped ($7.35 for 18 pieces).
Other variations include mochi ice cream, daifuku (stuffed mochi) and kusa mochi, a springtime treat. One type of daifuku I could not tolerate growing up but am now addicted to is loaded with azuki, a sweetened red bean. The fluffy mochi, paired with smooth, velvety azuki, works well with contrasting textures. Fujiya sells azuki daifuku at 70 cents apiece, or in boxes of 12 or 36 pieces for $8.50 or $21.40, respectively. Happy Hearts Mochi also sells 23-piece mochi assortments for $65. Orders must be placed two days in advance.
In honor of the upcoming New Year, folks eat kagami mochi and ozoni. Although my parents never followed the Japanese observance–we are of Japanese and Korean descent–of setting out kagami mochi (a savory option) for New Year’s, many of my friends’ families did. The purpose is to usher in a fulfilling new year. Nijiya Market, a Japanese food stockpile on steroids, carries various types of kagami mochi ranging from $5–$50, depending on the size and how elaborate the preparation is.
Ozoni is a hot comfort soup consumed on New Year’s, containing mochi rice cakes sunken in a clear broth. The soup is usually prepared with leafy vegetables and chicken, fish or meatballs. Meant to be chewed off or cut by a spoon, the mochi symbolizes longevity and wealth.
A comparatively new type of sweet mochi, locally tweaked and indigenous to the Islands, is butter mochi, a result of Hawaii’s melting pot. And although it incorporates coconut as an ingredient, there’s an astronomical amount of butter involved in making this guilty pleasure: one stick of it per pound of mochiko flour. The result is heavenly.
Last week, we reviewed Peace Café, where a selection of butter mochi of various flavors rotates daily, including decadent matcha with chocolate swirl ($2.45).
New Year’s Soup
Korean traditions are different, however–even with mochi. The proper Korean translation of mochi is dduk, with extra enunciation on the first consonant. Dduk separates itself from sweeter Japanese mochi with savoriness. There are a few sweet varieties eaten at weddings or birthdays. However, the staple dish come New Year’s is soulful dduk guk (pronounced duck-cook) soup.
Made by my mother every year on Christmas and New Year’s, dduk guk is my favorite “noodle” soup–one that carries an immense load of nostalgia. On days with unfavorable weather, if favor reigned in the kitchen, Mom would be putting together her signature clear broth, thickly sliced dduk, shredded juicy beef, julienned fried eggs, seaweed shreds and green onions. The entire combination never failed to bring contentment to my bleak day. Just as most Japanese mochi are believed to bring luck, so does dduk guk have its roots in serendipity.
Frozen and fresh dduk are available at Korean speciality stores, Palama Market and Queen’s Super Market. To my mother and her friends, frozen dduk is the preferred choice, since the dduk keeps well. Brands like Kohyang and Haedong produce bags of dduk year-round for about $4.19, and Palama Market makes it easy by selling dduk with a soup base for $3.79. Now there’s no excuse to miss out on mochi this New Year’s.