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What Is Mochi? Everything to know about the traditional Japanese dessert

In a small store nestled in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, a small however common Japanese confectionary store known as Fugetsu-Do is popping 120 years previous.

Though this can be a outstanding achievement — many L.A. eating places fail in a short time to the level it’s typically a punchline to locals — you wouldn’t know it strolling into the small store.

A small, purple signal denotes the yr it opened: “Since 1903.” Though the household was interned throughout World War II at Hart Mountain, Wyoming, and the enterprise was closed, they nonetheless depend these years towards the one hundred and twentieth anniversary. After all, when phrase unfold round the camp that Seiichi Kito, the store’s founder, was a pastry chef, fellow detainees saved their sugar rations to give him.

One lady of Japanese descent operates the worn counter as clients cease by, taking their orders in English and Japanese and passing them small luggage of varied treats by way of a plexiglass wall put up throughout the pandemic.

In the again, over the din of equipment and the slapping sounds of naked fingers on colourful rice flour, employees converse to one another in a mixture of Spanish, English and Japanese.

The crew is a testomony to the range of Southern California and altering instances — one which each proprietor Brian Kito and the bigger (however nonetheless very small) consortium of Japanese American confectionaries —hope to sustain with.

What is mochi and why is it important to Japanese culture? (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)What is mochi and why is it important to Japanese culture? (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

What is mochi and why is it vital to Japanese tradition? (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

What is mochi?

Mochi has historically been made by pounding steamed rice in a big wood mortar. The old-school fashion of utilizing your fingers and a wood mallet known as a kine to beat the glutinous rice is named “mochi-tsuki.”

Nowadays, many confectioners use mochi rice flour and heavy equipment that does most of the pounding for them.

What is the distinction between mochi and manju?

When folks consider mochi, they typically are referring to the traditional balls of pounded rice flour fastidiously ensconcing some kind of condiment — from the traditional purple bean paste to different, extra fashionable flavors, like Nutella or peanut butter.

Manju is the same confection however is baked with cake flour as an alternative.

At any given time, Kito says he has round 20 to 25 styles of treats available in the store. He categorizes them into traditional, artisan and snack classes.

What is mochi and why is it important to Japanese culture?
 (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)What is mochi and why is it important to Japanese culture?
 (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

What is mochi and why is it vital to Japanese tradition? (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

The artisan ones are sometimes distinctive — that includes issues like steamed egg yolk-flavored coating (pictured) or a really sticky, much less pounded rice exterior that has to be served with a leaf.

New sorts of Japanese confectionary treats

Many of the Japanese confectionary retailers nonetheless open in the United States — Kito estimates there to be fewer than 10 — have additionally had to modernize, making much less traditional treats that enchantment to youthful generations. That varieties the “snack” class for Kito.

He says he first began making suama mochi for many years in the past to goal Generation X children who did not have a style for the extra traditional desserts. Suama mochi would not have the condiments in the heart, and as an alternative are simply candy rectangles with colourful tops.

Then, in more moderen years, Kito says he began making “rainbow dango.” It’s a similar-style deal with to the suama mochi however as an alternative of bigger rectangles, they’re as an alternative rolled into little, snack-sized balls.

Rainbow dango are small, bite-sized colorful balls of sweet mochi rice flour. (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)Rainbow dango are small, bite-sized colorful balls of sweet mochi rice flour. (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

Rainbow dango are small, bite-sized colourful balls of candy mochi rice flour. (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

He says it shortly grew to become his hottest deal with. He additionally began to make the pounded rice treats with extra distinctive, sweeter facilities like peanut butter and chocolate ganache.

At Fujiya Hawai’i in Honolulu, their two hottest mochis are extra fashionable — one includes a recent strawberry inside whereas the different has crunchy peanut butter.

Fujiya, which has been open since 1953, has taken inspiration from the native delicacies.

The confectionery sells chichi dango, related to Kito’s rainbow dongo, however with completely different, even much less traditional flavors infused into the pounded rice flour.

What is mochi and why is it important to Japanese culture?
 (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)What is mochi and why is it important to Japanese culture?
 (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

What is mochi and why is it vital to Japanese tradition? (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

Hawai’i has lengthy been a melting pot of types, Fujiya’s proprietor Devin Wong tells TODAY.com in an interview.

Wong, who got here aboard the longtime enterprise two years in the past throughout the pandemic, says he grew up in Hawaii consuming mochi, like “everyone else.”

Their treats, particularly the chichi dango, are largely impressed by the flavors of the Hawaiian islands — like coconut, strawberry or mango.

New audiences

In current years, Kito says extra non-Japanese Americans have taken an curiosity in his bakery. After a BuzzFeed YouTube video about his store went viral in late 2019, Kito says the majority of in-person clients don’t determine as Japanese American.

Though he nonetheless shares his wares at the Southern California areas of Japanese American grocery retailer chain Mitsuwa — which helps hold enterprise booming — he says he was nearly unable to sustain with all the foot site visitors, particularly throughout the pandemic.

“We are so surprised on the big range of our customer base now,” Kito tells TODAY.com “(At first) because of the exposure, but the fact that these people come and they come again and again, they’re repeat customers. And yet, maybe three years ago, these people didn’t even know what mochi was, possibly.”

Continuing the custom

Wong says that when he noticed that Fujiya was on the lookout for a brand new proprietor, he wished to be part of conserving the custom alive — regardless of not being an professional in the craft of Japanese confectionery.

“A lot of (mochi shops) just got passed on to the son or whatever and a lot of them say it was more of an obligation than a choice,” he explains, including that the youthful generations of longtime house owners have been following their passions extra as an alternative of taking on their household retailers.

But “all the people that work (at Fujiya) want to be here.”

One of his workers, Dani Emoto, used to volunteer at the store when it was struggling years in the past. She says she and several other different ladies retired from their regular workplace jobs and went to work at Fujiya to assist hold it afloat.

When it grew to become clear they’d want her experience to hold going, the 72-year-old Emoto stated her volunteer gig become a paid job and she or he earned the nickname “Mochi Mama.”

“When other new people came on and younger helpers came on, everybody was like, ‘OK, Class Dani,” she says with fun. “And so it was like, ‘I guess I’m the I was one of the oldest people here, too.’ So I just became the mother.”

What is mochi and why is it important to Japanese culture?
 (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)What is mochi and why is it important to Japanese culture?
 (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

What is mochi and why is it vital to Japanese tradition? (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

Since Wong took over, Fujiya has relocated to a bigger location and employed a number of younger folks to employees the store and study the enterprise.

The battle of conserving a labor-intensive store open with a extremely specialised product is one enjoying out throughout the nation.

In San Francisco, the famed retailer Benkyodo closed after 115 years in 2022.

“My kids … all three of them have good jobs,” former Benkyodo co-owner Rick Okamura tells TODAY.com. “They don’t need to do the same thing I was doing all these years.”

Both Okamura and Kito say they’ve labored practically 12-hour days for six days per week for the previous a number of a long time — a tough life they perceive their children may not select for themselves.

“It’s sad, it was sad,” Okamura stated. “And all I could think about was my my grandfather and my father who put all that work into it and and we have to end it.”

But after years of onerous work, Okamura stated he was simply “so tired” and had to shut up store. However, he’s not solely positive what to do with himself throughout retirement.

“I’m so bored!” he laughs.

As for Kito, who will see his store flip 120 years previous this yr, he’s not sure what is going to occur to Fugetsu-Do when (and if) he retires. But even he can’t imagine he’s managed to hold it afloat this lengthy.

He tells tales about how his enterprise floundered in the Nineteen Nineties when the neighborhood was nearly thought-about blighted and through the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He says when the store turned 90 in 1993, he debated closing and “probably should’ve.”

But by way of all of it, he persevered. Kito cites his mother and father — who had to shut the store once they had been detained throughout World War II, then later purchase every little thing again to reopen once they had been allowed to return — as his inspiration.

Kito notes a well-liked saying in Japanese, “Shikata ga nai,” which loosely interprets to “It cannot be helped.”

“I look back at everything my parents had to go through and I just keep pushing through,” he says. “Shikata ga nai.”

This article was initially revealed on TODAY.com

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