Mochi by the Bay
Wisdom from local masters of the craft
Story and photos by Kaori Becker
Mochi! Suddenly it’s everywhere.
Made with mochiko, a flour milled from Japanese sticky rice, mochi went mainstream with the trend for gluten-free foods. But longtime fans of this traditional Japanese sweet know that mochi is just fun to eat. Its simple flavors and chewy-yet-supple texture make it a satisfying dessert, and it can be delicious in savories as well.
Good places to find it? People line up daily for the mochi donuts and muffins made by Berkeley’s Third Culture Bakery, and it’s easy to find mochi ice cream or even mochi cake mixes in East Bay grocery stores.
For shops regularly selling traditional, handcrafted Japanese daifuku mochi made freshly on site, you might have to travel to the South Bay, San Francisco, or Sacramento, but there’s also a culture of daifuku mochi-making alive and well here in the East Bay: You need only search a little “underground” to find it.
First, some background: Daifuku means “big luck” in Japanese. Daifuku mochi is a Japanese rice cake made with glutinous rice flour plus a sweetener (i.e., sugar or syrup) and water. These ingredients are blended together to make a batter, which is steamed vigorously, turning it into a thick and sticky dough. The dough is covered in katakuriko (potato starch) or cornstarch and then pinched off into pieces, which are stuffed with a variety of traditional or invented fillings.
At the Ohtani Temple
Every year in late July, Berkeley’s Ohtani Temple (also called the Higashi Honganji Temple) holds a summer bazaar. Satoko Davidson, who has been practicing the culinary art of mochi-making for over 50 years, works with two other mochi masters, Joey Ouye and Naomi Yamada, plus numerous volunteers, to make more than 2,000 pieces of mochi to be sold over two days at the bazaar. Each mochi is artfully and painstakingly crafted by hand and features a filling like strawberry with shiroan (sweet white bean paste), anko (sweet red bean paste), peanut butter, or a novelty like blueberry cheesecake.
As the oldest member of the Ohtani Temple mochi-making team, Satoko remembers back to the 1960s, when, at age 14, her mother first recruited her for mochi-making at the temple. Nine Japanese women were in charge back then, and they continued to prepare mochi for the bazaar for the next 40 years. They strove to make their mochi perfect, which requires both practice and attention to detail.
“Ohtani was known for its food,” says Satoko, “so everything had to be as perfect as possible. The anko [red bean paste] could not show through the top, the mochi had to be shaped properly, and all had to be approximately the same size. Most importantly, there could not be too much starch, and the bottom should be sealed and look as good as the top.”
Next to the Ohtani Temple is a tiny structure called the “mochi house.” It has a small gas stove where batter for the 2,000 pieces of mochi gets mixed, steamed, and kneaded. There’s also a back room where the mochi cools. Joey Ouye, who today is in charge of the mixing, steaming, and kneading, says that the mochi house becomes a sweathouse because any cool air allowed in will cause the mochi to firm up too quickly.
Work on the mochi for the bazaar starts at the crack of dawn, since mochi made the same day it’s sold is wonderfully pillowy and soft to the touch. When bitten into, the mochi is sticky and chewy, holding firm, yet still giving way to the sweet and earthy bean paste. The process for making it that Satoko learned 60 years ago is still followed today:
First the water, then the corn syrup, food coloring, and finally the mochiko were placed in the bowl. Stirring was done with a wooden spoon, but today we use a mixer for this step.
The mixed dough was placed on a small table and then in steamers on the stove. These ladies kneaded the hot dough with their hands. They would carry the hot dough to a table with a wooden cutting board that had the correct amount of katakuriko on it. Then it was carefully folded in half, making certain that no starch was in the dough. Then the dough was pinched off by hand and placed on the table with the pinched-part up and the dough shaped like a small round ball.
Making the mochi required that you have the correct amount of katakuriko on your hands. Too much would mean that it would be difficult to seal the mochi and there would be too much on the finished product. Too little and the hot mochi would stick and burn your hand.
The anko needed to be placed on the ball of dough without flattening it. If you flattened the dough, the filling would show through the top because the top was too thin. The dough would be massaged up for sealing.
The bazaar opens at four in the afternoon, and within the first hour, the day’s 1,000 pieces of fresh mochi completely sell out. It is the most popular item for sale, and people come from all over the Bay Area for it. Mochi-making is a labor of love that Satoko Davidson, Joey Ouye, and Naomi Yamada continue every year, but there is concern over who will carry on the tradition.
Mochi at Home
My mother, Yukiko Zinke, taught me to make mochi during my college years, and together we now host mochi-making classes in our San Leandro kitchen. We mix the dough batter, steam it, cover the dough with starch, and playfully toss each guest a piece of mochi to fill with fresh strawberries, mango, or blueberries along with an accompanying sweet bean paste or chocolate. Guests are encouraged to bring other fillings—such as taro paste or peanut butter—so there is a lot of creativity.
The room is rich with the aromatic scent of cooked rice, sugar, and sweet red bean paste as our guests use their hands to craft the mochi. They often express how relaxed they feel as childhood experiences of making cookies or playing with clay come to mind. There are plenty of smiles and much laughter as stories and memories arise in between sweet bites. I like to think that our classes are ensuring the art of mochi-making will continue. “A good piece of mochi,” Satoko reminds us, “is not just a piece of food. It’s a delicious piece of artwork.” ♦
Find Kaori Becker’s video of the Ohtani Temple mochi makers here.
Kaori and Yukiko's Microwave Daifuku Mochi
My mom and I use this easy recipe when we’re in a time crunch, but we also love how quickly it delivers white mochi, a perfect canvas for a variety of sweet fillings, including anko, chocolate, and fresh fruit. Watch our mochi-making tutorials at kaoriskitchen.com/mochimakingvideo.
Makes 10 pieces
1 cup mochiko flour
½ cup sugar
1¼ cups water
Cornstarch or potato starch for dusting
Optional flavorings: 1 teaspoon rosewater, vanilla, or matcha powder
Optional colorings: For green colored mochi, use 1 teaspoon matcha powder. For pink, use 2 drops liquid red food coloring or ½ teaspoon beet powder.
Anko (sweet red bean paste, find at Asian grocery stores)
Anko plus a thick slice of fresh strawberry
Nutella (chill ahead in the fridge to make it easy to scoop)
Nutella plus a slice of fresh strawberry
Peanut butter (scoop and freeze balls of filling in advance)
Blueberry or mango with anko
Cream cheese flavored with sugar and matcha and/or other flavoring of choice
Combine mochiko flour and sugar in a microwave-safe bowl. Whisk in water along with any desired flavoring and/or coloring. (I often add additional water to the dough because the microwave tends to dehydrate it.) Keep whisking until there are no dry lumps in the dough. Thorough mixing is important so dough will heat properly in the microwave.
Microwave dough, uncovered, on high for 3 minutes (or 5 minutes if making a double batch). Remove from oven.
1 Dip a spatula in water and use it to mix dough until it is sticky, thick, uniform in color, and slightly translucent. Microwave on high for another 2 minutes (or 4 minutes if making a double batch), then remove from the oven and stir again.
2 Spread a thick layer of cornstarch over a cutting board. Pour microwaved mochi dough onto the cornstarch and let cool for 5 minutes.
3 Generously dust your hands with cornstarch to prevent the mochi from sticking to your fingers. (You might want to use food-handling gloves.)
4 When dough is cool enough to handle, fold and roll the dough over on itself to make a fat log shape. Keep dusting and rubbing the log with cornstarch as you gently roll it into an even and slightly elongated shape.
5 With a knife or fingers, cut or pinch off golf ball–size pieces from the log, dusting cut edges with cornstarch. Flatten each ball with the palm of your hand into a ½-inch-thick disc.
6-8 Place 1 teaspoon of filling in the center of each disc. Then gently stretch and wrap the mochi dough up around the filling to completely enclose it.
9 Pinch the dough together at the top to seal in the filling.
10 Flip the mochi over and shape into a sphere.
11 Brush off excess starch and the mochi are now ready to serve. Enjoy!
12 Yukiko and Kaori invite you to visit kaoriskitchen.com for more mochi recipes and to learn about their mochi, ramen, udon, and sushi classes.
Food journalist and business coach Kaori Becker is author of the upcoming book, Let Your Passion Pay the Bills. She teaches cooking classes at Kaori’s Kitchen, her home-based classroom in San Leandro. kaoriskitchen.com