Friday, December 14, 2012

Mochi: The Problem


I have a love/love relationship with wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). Although I could eat these bean-paste-based confections all day, a dozen at a time (despite the impropriety of such an act), they do give me a great deal of trouble. There are two main reasons for this.

1)      They are something of an acquired taste, even among Japanophiles, and as such are not readily available in American supermarkets, restaurants or confectionaries. This is particularly true here in the eastern side of the country, where one can find long-shelf-life, unremarkable daifuku* in most Asian groceries, but not much else. I tend to go a little crazy every time we visit the west coast and have an opportunity to shop at a dedicated Japanese market.

*Daifuku is red bean paste surrounded by a layer of mochi, about the size of a small Clementine.

2)      Because good wagashi lacks preservatives and is made fresh of basic ingredients, the obvious solution to the lack of wagashi in my part of the world is to make my own. Wagashi are, at their core, made up of three basic ingredients (dried beans, sugar, glutinous rice) that are all readily available. Wagashi are also, unfortunately, intensely labor intensive and require quite a lot of skill (as well as time) to make well.

There are a number of shortcut materials out there to make wagashi easier to produce. Canned bean paste allows one to start making wagashi when the urge strikes, instead of starting the night before with soaking beans, and then spending hours at or near the stove the next day, in order to produce the most basic building block of the food genre. Pre-made mochi saves one from I-don’t-even-know-how-much-work, because mochi making is a lengthy, drawn-out process that, in traditional Japanese practice, involves a giant mallet and a gathering of the entire neighborhood.

I am sure that these shortcut materials are great, but there is a problem with them all. We can’t bring them into our kitchen. We keep a kosher kitchen, which means that any goods produced from many ingredients in a factory setting require special certification if we are going to cook with them. While we are blessed with a wide variety of kosher-certified ingredients, mochi ain’t one of ’em.

Mochi rice, or glutinous rice (a gluten-free product, despite its name) comes from a specific, low-yield rice plant. To make mochi, one must:
·         soak mochi rice overnight
·         steam the rice for about an hour
·         keep the rice hot while pounding it hard, continuously, for at least 15 minutes
·         using corn starch, somehow take the stickiest product known to mankind and cut it into reasonably-sized pieces. Coat these with more corn starch. Somehow do this while the product is still too hot to handle, because if you wait until it has cooled it will simply not comply with any part of this process.

I tried making a batch of mochi a few months ago, and pounded away with a mortar and pestle. After I had pounded for as long as I could possibly pound, I was left with a cold, unmanageable, not-very-pounded-up lump of stuck-together rice pieces. I gave up on ever making mochi, and decided that my rice-based wagashi would be limited to ohagi.*

*Ohagi, which is associated with the autumn equinox and the visiting of the family gravesite in Japan, is a more rustic wagashi than most. The outside is a coarse bean paste, surrounding a minimally pounded mochi center that, conveniently, looked a lot like my unsuccessful attempt to make mochi.

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