Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

mochi, in Japanese, refers to rice cakes and other dumpling-shaped foods made from sticky substances. Mochi are similar to dango, except that mochi are traditionally made with pounded whole grain and dango are from flour. See dango. Rice cake mochi are made from polished glutinous rice, which becomes naturally sticky when steamed. Traditionally, the steamed rice is pounded in a large mortar with a pestle to form the cakes, a labor-intensive process, which, coupled with the fact that polished rice was expensive, made rice cakes a luxury food. Rice cakes can be formed into many shapes and are integral to ceremonies and seasonal observances. Depending on the region of Japan, round or square rice cakes are used in the savory New Year’s soup called ozōni. Also synonymous with the New Year are the rotund and thick mirror cakes (kagami mochi) created as offerings to deities and as symbols of prosperity. Rice flour has replaced pounded grain in most versions of mochi confectionery, of which there are countless varieties. Rice flour cakes stuffed with sweetened azuki bean paste (an) are wrapped with pickled cherry leaves to make Cherry Leaf Cake, a favorite during cherry blossom season. See azuki beans. Mochi can also be stuffed with strawberries, or covered with azuki paste or sesame seeds. Mochi ice cream is an invention of Los Angeles’s Japan Town. Before World War II, rice cakes were reserved for special occasions, but other varieties of savory mochi were eaten daily. The latter were made from wheat or millet, nuts, sweet potatoes, taro, or bracken (warabi), created with or without a filling, and grilled or added to soups and porridges.