Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Makin' mochi *(updated with news tidbit)*

I meant to post this in January, in commemoration of the New Year, which is when Japanese eat mochi as a celebration food.

But since the sticky rice cake has become more familiar in American culture thanks to the popularity of mochi ice cream, I figured it's still worth posting belatedly, to explain what mochi is and how it's made.

First, a crucial clarification: mochi ice cream is NOT mochi.
Those bon-bon-like ice cream balls actually only have a very thin skin of rice cake around the ice cream.

So please don't call mochi ice cream "mochi." Just like you wouldn't call chocolate-covered bon-bons "chocolate." They're bon-bons, covered in chocolate, right?

**Photos and VIDEO follow**

Mochi is actually eaten as a dense ball or patty (cake) of glutinous rice, used like dumplings in soup, or toasted to a crisp on the outside, gooey on the inside, and eaten wrapped in nori seaweed - much like the onigiri rice balls Japanese schoolchildren often have for lunch.

And mochi rice cake is a key food item during New Year's.

The Japanese commemorate New Year's Day on Jan. 1, same as Western cultures (as compared to the lunar calendar). But they celebrate the New Year not by getting crazy drunk and kissing everyone in sight (well, perhaps some lushes do), but by eating all sorts of special foods that signify good luck in different ways (soba noodles for longevity, sweet black beans for a healthy and productive year, etc.). Sort of like making resolutions through the stomach.

During New Year's, large versions of mochi are also used as a decoration, displayed in homes as offerings to the harvest god. Here's my parents' New Year's decor this year:
Traditionally, mochi is made in festive communal style, with friends and family gathering together to take turns pounding the rice (the men, mostly) into sticky mochi consistency with a wooden mallet in a stone or wooden mortar. The women and children, typically, then pull pieces of the sticky glob and shape them into smaller cakes for consumption.

Laborious, but an anticipated holiday ritual.

In this modern age, there are now mochi-making machines, similar to bread-making machines, that take care of most of the work, pounding the rice into the sticky mass.

Everyone in my family loves mochi so much that my parents bought one of these machines years back, when they first came on the market.

And every year, a few days after Christmas, my parents call us over for a day of mochi making - well, shaping, really.

This year, it was especially fun because my 6-year-old niece Elle (pictured in top photo) is old enough to help us. Here are images and video from the day:

1. The prep work (clockwise in the photo below, from upper left corner): spread special "Mochiko" mochi flour on the kitchen table to mitigate sticking; put the mochi rice in the machine; the machine pounds and spins the rice into about 3 pounds of mochi per batch:

2. Shaping the mochi: My sister, Emi, is the most skilled at shaping the rice cakes. The mochi hardens quickly, so you have to work fast after it comes out of the machine.
First, you pull a piece from the large mass and pull the softer inside part out to create the smooth surface of the cake/ball - sort of like flipping your clothes inside out.
Then you pinch the the bottom of the cake to keep the round shape and smooth the surface all around.
The photos and video (with bilingual commentary by Wonder-Niece Elle and my mom) illustrate this better:

3. And finally, the BEST part of mochi making: eating the fresh mochi with grated daikon radish.
After all the work is done, we save the last batch of the day for eating fresh out of the machine. We pull the pieces off the mass and drop like dumplings into a bowl of the grated daikon, flavored with soy sauce.
This dish can only be eaten with soft, fresh mochi - it doesn't work any other way because the mochi gets too hard to soak up the daikon bath.
It's tangy, chewy, comforting. A true reward for the labor.
In case you're wondering: we made 40 pounds of mochi this year, doled out to a handful of family members ... and it was mostly consumed in a matter of a couple weeks. (I do have about a 10 cakes left in my freezer as I blog, but at a rate of 2 or 3 cakes eaten per bowl of soup, I'll be done with them in a month.)

*UPDATE/P.S. I mistakenly forgot earlier to mention a very important aspect of eating mochi: take small bites. Every year around New Year's Day in Japan, senior citizens and children are reminded to consume the mochi in tiny bites so as not to choke on it. And every year after Jan. 1, there are news accounts of how many mochi deaths occurred during the holiday.
No joke. Go forth and nibble and chew thoroughly!


Back from the depths, still seeking the real

Yes, I'm still alive.
I wanted to come up with a good excuse for neglecting this blog for nearly six (gulp!) months, but "my dog ate my laptop" didn't quite work, since, well, I don't have a dog.

There's no good excuse. I just got busy with life. I've eaten sushi, but I just got lazy about writing about it. My apologies to the handful (um, maybe 3?) of my fans out there.

Done with my brief visit to Slackerdom, I'm gonna do my best to catch up. I actually have a lot to share.

I'll start with this other blogger's post that I came across recently.

Obviously, I loved her for espousing exactly what I'm espousing.
And she's not (I don't think) Japanese. Her name is Heather Irwin and she's an educated, articulate foodie (from the Midwest, of all places) whose well-written Bite Club blog is served up on the New York Times-owned, the local newspaper for Sonoma County (including wine country), in Northern California.

Her eloquently written "sad state of mainstream sushi" post came back to my mind today, when I was thinking about trying a fairly new sushi place I spotted in my neck of the woods.
My early research on Yelp a few months ago made me think this may be an authentic little mom-and-pop Japanese place. But when I checked Yelp again today, there were dozens more 5-star reviews raving about the beer and the rolls, written by obvious Sushi Rookies (dead giveaway: some complained the rolls were too SMALL. Egad!).

These "Gimme Phat rolls" sushi groms need to read a bit of Ms. Bite Club:

"I won't pretend to know much more about the mastery of sushi outside of what I've learned over 15 years of loving sushi and a friendly Wikipedia assist, but I can say that ... the increasing preponderance of American-style sushi rolls (mango! wasabi mayonnaise! lots of fried stuff inside!) sends me (and most true sushi chefs) into convulsions. California rolls are one thing. Stuffing a piece of nori with as much sweet, creamy, fried stuff as it will hold and then squirting sauce all over it is quite another."
Here, here!

I did find one balanced, 3-star Yelp review by a "Japanese-educated sushi eater" who confirmed the chef-owner is Korean, and advised not to get the nigiri or sashimi because the fish quality is questionable for the price. She suggested this as a good place for rolls and lunch.

Needless to say, I won't be checking out this place after all.

This depressed me a bit, the fact that the happening, diverse city of Long Beach (population >450,000!) can't seem to open and keep any REAL sushi places. The closest to the real thing, Sushi Saurus, closed recently and is apparently under new ownership.

Ironically, I found better quality raw fish in Mexico City recently: the sea-bass sashimi, pictured at the top of this post, served up at the Sheraton Centro Historico Hotel. This appetizer was served with chopped onions and very mild peppers and a yuzu-olive oil. The dish was actually bland in taste (where's the soy sauce when you need it?), but the fish was high quality, firm and fresh-tasting.

Is there a real sushi place in Long Beach that I've missed somehow? Please alert me by commenting!