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Bubbies' famous mochi ice cream; Kagami mochi (photo by Yuki Nakayama)

Celebrating health, happiness and mochi in Hawai’i.

Japanese have enjoyed mochi, a sweet rice cake, for more than 1,500 years. The soft, dumpling-like treat is eaten year-round, but it’s especially popular during New Year’s. The Japanese staple is also beloved in Hawai’i, where local flavors create mochi that’s unique to the islands.

Eaten as an everyday snack, or for special occasions, mochi dough can be fried for dessert, or in the holiday tradition, used to make ozoni, a good luck soup. Presentation ranges from bite-sized pieces wrapped like candy, to colorful rounds tucked into clear plastic containers, and buttery squares laid on Styrofoam trays and sold in grocery stores.

Making mochi the traditional way, called mochitsuki, is not easy. Steamed glutenous rice is hand-pounded until it submits to a pillowy, yet chewy dough, with a gel-like texture. The bland dough is rolled around different ingredients. For example, Nakatanidou, a mochi shop in Nara City, Japan, makes yomogi mochi. The green dough is naturally tinted with mugwort, stuffed with red bean paste and dusted with roasted soybean flour.

Over two decades, Mitsuo Nakatani, owner of Nakatanidou, has made mochisuki into a spectator sport. Crowds gather to watch his partner swing a broad wood mallet into a deep wood bowl, hammering a sticky mass of steamed rice. Nakatani quickly reaches in, gives it a turn, then slaps it back to center. The process is kind of like kneading bread dough, only a lot faster. Each man whacks the mochi mound three times per second, so timing is critical to avoid injury. To coordinate, both men shout as they’re ready to hit, creating a rhythmic cautionary call.

Contemporary home cooks in Tokyo streamline the ancient technique. Mochiko, a glutinous rice flour, is used as the base, then baked in a cake pan, and cut into small squares. Japanese-Americans in Hawaii fill mochi rounds with liliko’i (passionfruit) cheesecake; ‘ulu (breadfruit) spice; chocolate and whole strawberries; chocolate cream and haupia (coconut pudding); or pumpkin cheesecake. Butter mochi, blended with sugar, eggs, coconut milk, butter and vanilla, is baked and the squares can be found in grocery stores across the state.

Nisshodo Candy Store (nisshodomochicandy.com) on O’ahu uses powered milk in their chichi dango mochi. The rich and creamy confection is so popular, one employee wraps 6,000 pieces every day.

Minamoto Kitchoan (kitchoan.com) at Ala Moana Center and Kahala Mall are two of more than 250 high-end shops in Hawai’i, Singapore, Japan and London. In summer, their mochi is stuffed with succulent mango, or fresh white peaches. In fall, kuri mochi is layered with fresh chestnut and red bean pastes. During Valentine’s Day, chocolate mochi dough is filled with silky ganache centers. Sakura mochi, wrapped in pickled cherry leaves and topped with salted cherry blossoms, is made for Girl’s Day.

Mochitsuki is also the name for a Japanese New Year’s tradition, when families gather to pound huge batches of mochi. The ritual began between 300 BC and 300 AD, when the first mochitsuki followed the first rice cultivation. During the Japanese Heian period (794-1185), nobles of the Imperial Court saw mochi as a symbol of wellbeing and longevity. During New Year’s in Hawai’i, families steam and pound sticky rice as a way to spend time together, show gratitude for the previous year, and pray for the health and happiness of loved ones in the upcoming year.

Public mochi poundings offer visitors an opportunity to experience a true taste of Hawai’i, and if you like, you can try your hand at pounding mochi. You don’t have to know anything, because participants are guided through the process. Some events include crafts, food vendors, fortune telling, massage, I Ching readings, Okinawan taiko drumming and Hawaiian entertainment.

On Hawai’i Island, the 20th Annual Wailea Village Mochi Pounding is on Dec. 30. O’ahu celebrates during the Honbushin International Center New Year’s Mochitsuki Festival (date TBA).

Mochi morsels typically served during events like these include kinako, broiled mochi topped with soybean flour and sugar; mochi stuffed with peanut butter; wrapped in nori; or filled with sweet red bean paste.

In Hawai’i, mochi is a tasty treat any day of the year. But its superpower is during New Year’s, when mochisuki evokes a simpler time of companionship, family and community.