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What is Mochi? Everything you need to know about the traditional Japanese dessert

In a small shop in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles, a small but popular Japanese confectionery store called Fugetsu-Do has been celebrating 120 years.

While this is a remarkable achievement (many restaurants in LA go out of business very quickly, so it’s often a punchline for locals), you wouldn’t notice it when you step into the small shop.

A small red sign indicates the year it opened: “Since 1903.” Although the family was interned in Hart Mountain, Wyoming, during World War II and the business closed, they still count those years toward the 120th anniversary. After all, when news spread in the camp that Seiichi Kito, the store’s founder, was a pastry chef, fellow prisoners saved their sugar rations to give to him.

A woman of Japanese descent tends the worn counter as customers pass by, taking their orders in English and Japanese and handing them small bags of various treats through a plexiglass wall erected during the pandemic.

In the back, above the noise of machinery and the clap sounds of bare hands on colorful rice flour, the staff speak to each other in a combination of Spanish, English and Japanese.

The crew is a testament to Southern California’s diversity and the changing times—a time that both owner Brian Kito and the larger (but still very small) consortium of Japanese-American confectioners—hope to keep up.

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?

Mochi is traditionally made by pounding steamed rice in a large wooden mortar. The old-fashioned style of using your hands and a wooden mallet, called a kine, to beat the glutinous rice is called “mochi-tsuki.”

Today, many pastry chefs use mochi rice flour and heavy machinery to do most of the work for them.

What is the difference between mochi and manju?

When people think of mochi, they often mean the traditional balls of pounded rice flour that have been carefully incorporated with some kind of seasoning – from the traditional red bean paste to other, more modern flavors, such as Nutella or peanut butter.

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Manju is a similar delicacy but is fried with cake flour instead.

Kito says he has about 20 to 25 types of treats in the store at any given time. He categorizes them into traditional, artisanal and snack categories.

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 important to Japanese culture? (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

The artisanal ones are often unique – with things like a steamed egg yolk flavored coating (pictured) or a very sticky, less pounded rice exterior that should be served with a leaf.

New types of Japanese confectionery

Many of the Japanese confectionery stores still open in the United States — Kito estimates there are fewer than 10 — have also had to modernize, cutting down on the traditional treats that appeal to younger generations. For Kito, this forms the ‘snack’ category.

He says he first started making suama mochi decades ago to target Generation X kids who had no taste for more traditional desserts. Suama mochi has no spices in the center, but are simply sweet rectangles with colorful tops.

Kito then says that he has started making ‘rainbow dango’ in recent years. It’s a similar style treat to the suama mochi, but instead of larger rectangles, they are instead rolled into small snack-sized balls.

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

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

He says it quickly became his most popular treat. He also started making the pounded rice treats with more unique, sweeter centers like peanut butter and chocolate ganache.

At Fujiya Hawai’i in Honolulu, their two most popular mochis are more modern: one contains a fresh strawberry and the other has crunchy peanut butter.

Open since 1953, Fujiya has been inspired by local cuisine.

The confectionery shop sells chichi-dango, similar to Kito’s rainbow dongo, but with different, even less traditional flavors incorporated 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 important to Japanese culture? (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

Hawai’i has long been something of a melting pot, Fujiya’s owner Devin Wong told TODAY.com in an interview.

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Wong, who came aboard the old company two years ago during the pandemic, says he grew up in Hawaii eating mochi just like “everyone else.”

Their treats, especially the chichi-dango, are largely inspired by the flavors of the Hawaiian Islands, such as coconut, strawberry or mango.

New audience

Kito says that in recent years, more and more non-Japanese Americans have shown interest in his bakery. After a BuzzFeed YouTube video about his store went viral in late 2019, Kito says the majority of in-person customers do not identify as Japanese-American.

Although he still stocks his wares at the Southern California locations of Japanese-American grocery chain Mitsuwa — which is booming — he says he’s barely been able to keep up with the foot traffic, especially during the pandemic.

“We are now so amazed at the wide reach of our customer base,” Kito tells TODAY.com. “(Initially) because of the fame, but the fact that these people come and come back again and again, they are repeat customers. And yet, maybe three years ago, these people may not have even known what mochi was.”

Continuing the tradition

Wong says that when he saw Fujiya was looking for a new owner, he wanted to be part of keeping the tradition alive – despite not being an expert in the craft of Japanese confectionery.

“A lot of (mochi shops) have just been passed down to the son or whatever, and a lot of them say it was more of an obligation than a choice,” he explains, adding that the younger generations of old owners have their passions followed. more instead of taking over their family stores.

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

One of his employees, Dani Emoto, volunteered at the store years ago when it was struggling. She says she and several other women quit their normal office jobs and started working at Fujiya to keep the company going.

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When it became clear they needed her expertise to continue, Emoto, 72, said her volunteer work turned into a paid job and she was nicknamed “Mochi Mama.”

“When other new people came and younger helpers came, everyone was like, ‘Okay, class Dani,'” she says, laughing. “And so I thought, ‘I think I’m the oldest.’ So I just became a 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 important to Japanese culture? (Samantha Kubota / TODAY)

Since Wong took over, Fujiya has moved to a larger location and hired several young people to staff the store and learn the business.

The struggle to keep a labor-intensive store open with a highly specialized product is playing out across the country.

In San Francisco, the famous Benkyodo store closed in 2022 after 115 years.

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

Both Okamura and Kito say they have worked six days a week, nearly 12 hours a day, for the past decades — a difficult life that they understand their children might not choose for themselves.

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

But after years of hard work, Okamura said he was just “so tired” and had to close the store. However, he’s not quite sure what to do with himself in retirement.

“I am bored!” he smiles.

As for Kito, who will see his shop turn 120 years old this year, he’s not sure what will happen to Fugetsu-Do when (or if) he retires. But even he can’t believe he’s managed to keep it going for so long.

He tells stories about how his business went bankrupt in the 1990s, when the neighborhood was considered nearly destroyed, and during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He says that when the store turned 90 in 1993, he debated closing it and that he ‘probably should have done that’.

But despite everything, he persevered. Kito cites his parents – who had to close the shop when they were detained during World War II and later had to buy everything back and reopen it when they were allowed to return – as his inspiration.

Kito notes a popular Japanese saying: “Shikata ga nai,” which roughly translates to “Nothing can be done about it.”

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

This article was originally published on TODAY.com

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