Making up with Mochi. Gateway Foods in Foreign Lands.

My gateway mochi dish: Shiratama and shiruko at the Onishi Matsuri.
My gateway mochi dish: Shiratama and shiruko at the Onishi Matsuri.

If you live someplace long enough, you eventually develop craving foods you thought you once vowed never to eat. There’s one moment and one dish that becomes the gateway for appreciating that food in all its forms. This is true for me and mochi. This is sort of a tale about my journey to mochi appreciation. Plus a recipe!

Mochi is one of the foundation ingredients for countless Japanese desserts. It’s made from a different kind of rice than used at a meal. Mochi rice is more glutinous. You can pound the cooked rice into a sticky dough or mix up a special mochi rice flour and make a different type of sticky dough.

Sticky. Sticky is a key word when it comes to mochi. Sticky is the reason I was used to be scared to eat mochi. When I first moved to Japan, people delighted in telling me the number of people who died from choking on sticky mochi balls. Mostly the victims were elderly Japanese and kids. The cautionary tales of mochi tragedy are a kind of rite of passage for newbies to Japan but they really hit me hard.

I’m scared of choking on stuff because of two childhood events. The first was a Reader’s Digest story about a young man dying from a mysterious illness that turned out to be a fishbone lodged in his throat.** In my teens my sister choked on a huge gob of cheese from her French onion soup. She survived the incident  and endures the jokes that come up with every subsequent mention of mozerella and onion soup with pretty good humor.  So yeah. I had some issues.

Mochi’s pretty much flavorless. So why do people like it? Because of the texture. Just make sure you chew it carefully. Mochi also acts like an umami base to balance the sweeter parts of Japanese deserts like anko (a paste made from the sweet red bean, adzuki) or kuromitsu (a syrup made from Okinawan unrefined, dark sugar). If eaten with something a bit more bitter, like green tea or matcha, then you can taste the slight grain sweetness. You find mochi in variations of dango (usually mochi with adzuki bean paste centre), kagamai mochi at New Year’s  and sometimes in soups. You can even bake it in toaster.

I’m fascinated by Japanese desserts, mostly by how they look. I never craved mochi. I’ve ocassionally eaten dango, usually because someone gave it to me, but never really wanted to eat it until I recently discovered shiratama. Now I’m even making for myself at home. It’s that easy to make and pretty hard to get wrong.

Shiratama are exactly what the name says, balls of white dango. I learned how to make shiratama dango (literally white balls of dango) while helping out at the Matcha Café in the Kinuya Building ofo Shiro Oni Studio in Onishi., Gunma. Matcha Café is only open during the weekend of the Onishi Matsuri (festival). Fuyuko Kobori is a Sado (tea ceremony) practitioner and was runs the café.

During a break from the busy cafe, Fuyuko made me a cup of iced matcha and a bowl of the shiratama we made with chilled shiruko. I sat on a bench in front of the cafe and enjoyed my cool snack as the matsuri parade passed by. The sun was hot and many people stopped at the cafe after catching sight of my icy cold matcha. Others were interested in slightly salty shiruko blended well with the deep rice taste of the shiratama. The matcha was the perfect complement of bitter and slight sweet matcha aftertaste. And they were easy to eat. Not at all difficult to chew.

It wasn’t just the taste that hooked me. It was the experience. The sun, the matsuri, the camaraderie of working in the cafe and learning to make shiratama. It was something I wanted to continue by making at home. My husband loves this kind of dessert and I realized that I could share this by making it for him. Mochi is becoming something I tolerate, but something I enjoy making at home.

What food do you love now but it used to ick you out? What was your gateway food or moment?

Recipe Time! If you try this please post a picture and let me know how it turned out.

How to make Shiratama

Increase the happy value by adding faces to shiratama before you boil it. My first attempt at shiratama on my home.

1. Mix one package with about 90 mL of water (double check the instructions on your package as it may be a different size).
2. Add the water bit by bit. The dough shouldn’t be crumbly and it shouldn’t be too wet. If it’s not just right you, breaks down when you boil it. Fuyuko gave this great analogy for the perfect dough texture: it should be about the same firmness as your earlobe.
4. Make balls about 2.5 cm in diameter and pinch them slightly. This allows the middle to cook. Smaller, flatter dango also reduce choking hazards!
5. Add the mochi balls to the boiling water.
6. Boil until they float on the surface.
7. Drain them and run under cold water.

Store unused shiratama in water otherwise it will stick together. Keeps for about 2 days in the fridge. It’s actually safe to eat it for a bit longer, but shiratama dissolves a bit when stored in water and after two days, the texture isn’t as nice to eat.

Some Suggestions on How to Serve Shiratama

Summer Style
Serve on top of green tea ice cream with anko.
Serve with cold shiruko (red bean soup) and green tea ice cream and a nice cup of matcha.
Serve with cold fruit, anko paste and an mitsu (agar jelly cubes)
Winter Style
Heat the shiruko and eat shiratama like a warm sweet soup.

**There is another rite of passage I had as a newbie to Japan, where I was directly confronted with this fear of fishbones.

I Just Invented a Salad Dressing

Daikon salad was on the menu tonight. I’m not keen on the shoyu-based Japanese salad dressing from the store but it goes really well with daikon. I like it better if I add wasabi which is a trick I learned from the izakaya chain, Tengu. But I didn’t want to shop so I decided to make do with what was in my fridge and the tips learned from my friend Chieko. The result was much better than anything I could have bought premade.

Because I love my friends I am going to share the recipe with you. If you are familiar with Japanese cooking this probably won’t be ground shaking for you, but if you are looking for a new taste sensation give this a go.

Flavor target: amazuppai (sweet and sour) with a strong umami base.

Miso koji 2 Tbsp
Kurozu (black rice vinegar) 2 Tbsp
Lemon juice squeeze from one quarter wedge
Olive oil 1 tsp
Sashimi shoyu 2 Tbsp
Sugar 1.5 tsp
White onion minced 2 Tbsp
Green onion 1 Tbsp

Explaining the Ingredients

Miso koji is a fermentation starter for miso. It seems to be quite popular this year. It tastes just like miso but is less processed. This is a great site if you want to read more about it. Variation: if you can’t find miso koji use regular miso.I don’t recommend red or aka miso but if you prefer that taste, go for it.

Kurozu is rice vinegar made from genmai (brown rice) and is less filtered. It has a more pungent taste. This ingredient has also been experiencing a popularity boom for its reputed health benefits. Variation: regular rice vinegar will work fine. Cider vinegar might do in a pinch. If you try the cider vinegar let me know.

Sashimi shoyu just tastes better than regular shoyu. Maybe it’s more refined or fermented but it has a lighter taste to it that is almost wine-like. It’s a smaller bottle and more expensive but worth it. Not to be used if you are doing teriyaki or niku jaga. Variation: reduced salt kikkoman brand is kind of close.

Sugar is self explanatory but traditionally it would be mirin instead of sugar. Mirin generally sits unused in my fridge so I stopped buying it. I can’t taste any real difference between mirin and sugar and I feel like I have to add heaps of mirin before I notice any effect.

Onion gives it some flavor and some body to the dressing. It also seems to keep it attached to the daikon. Variation: red onion would probably taste better but none was at hand tonight. Green onion is completely optional.

Olive oil could be replaced by any salad oil.

My friend Chieko’s know how has been a basis for trying different recipes in the kitchen. According to her, shoyu, vinegar and mirin are the main basis for a lot of Japanese dressings with miso not to far behind. Yuzu (citrus type), yuzu kosho (spice made of yuzu), wasabi and sesame are all common things to add to the base to get different favors. Experiment with amounts and spices to come up with something you like.

More Variations:
The amounts can be varied in order to suit your taste. I prefer a strong vinegar taste so I add more vinegar. The lemon juice adds some zip if you want more liquid without adding more vinegar or oil. Adding more shoyu is also an option but it gets quite salty and the miso koji is already salty.

%d bloggers like this: