Monday, January 3, 2011

Mochi Ice Cream

Mochi Ice Cream
Mikawaya, $4.50/6

When I tell people about my interest in Japanese sweets, I usually get one of two responses: either polite silence, or "Have you tried those mochi ice cream balls?"

If I had a dollar for every time I've rolled my eyes at that question, I'd be able to hire my own personal mochi maker. Yes, I've tried mochi ice cream. Is it delicious? Sure. Is it interesting? Until recently, I didn't think so.

If this criticism seems absurd, let me explain that I normally find mochi as fascinating as it is delicious. Essentially an amorphous mass of so-called "sweet" glutinous rice beaten into a paste, mochi is a bland and blank thing of almost unlimited potential. Mochi can be: dried, steamed, roasted or fried; made sweet or savory; filled, coated, or dipped; formed into a hundred different shapes; eaten as a snack or offered on an altar.

Mochi is a major feature of Japanese New Year's celebrations and many families or communities gather annually for mochi making parties. Last year I attended two such mochitsuki. At Seattle's Nichirenshu, the congregation has been making mochi as a fundraiser for decades; using noisy electric grinders to transform the steamed rice helps them to keep up with orders. On Bainbridge Island, the community mochitsuki is a younger tradition with a more old-fashioned approach; volunteers take turns beating the rice with a heavy wooden mallet while onlookers enjoy the "fruits" of their labor, filled with red bean paste or dipped in sweetened soy sauce.

This year I was unable to make it to any of Seattle's mochitsuki, but I was in the mood for some mochi with which to ring in the New Year. And there they were, in the freezer at Trader Joe's: Mikawaya mochi ice cream balls. They turned out to be better than I remembered and more interesting that I expected.

Los Angeles-based Mikawaya was established in 1908 and named after Mikawa, a town in the Japanese prefecture of Aichi that was home to one of the founders. Ryuzaburo Hashimoto bought the company two years later, and his descendants have been in charge ever since. The company face a major challenge in 1942, with the signing of Executive Order 9066. Along with thousands of West Coast Japanese-Americans, the Hashimotos were "relocated" to a rural internment camp and their business was shuttered. Although Mikawaya remained closed throughout the war, the Hashimotos were able to reopen by Christmas, 1945, one door down from their previous location.

Compared with many Japanese-owned businesses, Miyakawa was relatively undented by the wartime hiatus. The Hashimoto family, however, had one unforgettable reminder of their expereince: daughter Frances, born at the internment camp in Poston, Arizona.

Today, Frances is Mikawaya's President and CEO, as well as guardian of the secret family mochi recipe. Under her leadership, Mikawaya has developed a strikingly diverse line-up. In addition to hand-formed Japanese-style wagashi sweets that Ryuzaburo would recognize, Mikawaya produces cakes, pastries, and gelato in a modern Los Angeles factory.

Introduced in 1994, mochi ice cream is now Mikawaya's best known product. A ball of ice cream encased in soft rice dough, mochi ice cream is an elegantly simple hybrid of Japanese and Europe traditions. Seven flavors are now on the market; Mikawaya asked fans to vote via Facebook for flavor number eight and the winner was pumpkin. When the new treat appears later this year it will epitomize the melding of Japanese, European, and indigenous American tastes.

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