As we approach the end of the year and welcome a new one, we turn to chewy rice cookies (you may know them better as mochi) to celebrate the coming and going of good times. In Asian traditions, rice cakes have always played a symbolic role in lunar New Year celebrations in countries from China and Korea to Thailand and Vietnam.As we approach the end of the year and welcome a new one, we turn to chewy rice cookies (you may know them better as mochi) to celebrate the coming and going of good times. In Asian traditions, rice cakes have always played a symbolic role in lunar New Year celebrations in countries from China and Korea to Thailand and Vietnam. For December, we created an Asian-American style mochi recipe. No, there isn’t ice cream in it but it’s pan-fried—with the traditional chewy texture but filled with flavors like cherry chocolate, sweet butter bean paste, chestnut and other exciting tastes. You will find the recipe and flavor suggestions at the end of the article, but we encourage you to get creative by using the sweet, sticky treat to envelope your favorite preserves or flavors.
New Year’s Sticky Rice Cakes
rice cakes are very popular in numerous Asian cultures.
The sticky rice cake is such an essential food to Asian culture that it’s almost hard to find an Asian community that doesn’t incorporate rice cakes into New Year customs. It was a sign for us to write about it for Asiance readers. For example, the Chinese New Year: nian gao, a sticky rice cake steamed in lotus leaves which originated from southern China is eaten to evoke a successful career and prosperity down the road. In Mandarin Chinese, gao, means high, and nian phonetically translates to both sticky and year; hence, the sticky rice cake is a symbolic food that encourages a promising year ahead. We can’t forget another important food for the Chinese New Year—tang yuan, sticky rice balls boiled with sweet beans in a sugar soup.
Dduk gook, rice cake soup, is by far the most important dish eaten for Seol-nal—the Korean New Year. Made from pulverized rice, the rice cakes have a noodle-like texture and are normally served in a clear beef broth. Eating this dish is believed to, of course, bring luck for the forthcoming year as well as add an additional year of life for the eater.
In Vietnam, Tet takes places over the course of three days: New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and the Third Day. Banh chung, squares of steamed cakes made with glutinous rice and stuffed with mung beans or fatty pork and wrapped in banana leaves, are prepared before New Year’s Eve because it is taboo to do any type of work the first three days of Tet. Banh chung are placed on worship altars and eaten during Tet as a way of showing respect for ancestors, elders, and tradition.
In Cambodia, a new year is welcomed by eating staple dishes like sticky rice with bananas and sticky rice cake with freshly ground sweet beans. The sticky rice with bananas honors Shiva the Hindu God, and the sticky rice cake pays respects to Shiva’s wife, Uma. Read further and you’ll learn about the special ceremony just for mochi-Japanese sweet rice cake.
There are generally two types of rice flour. One is made from rice that is normally eaten in whole-kernel form, like long grain rice. The second is made from glutinous sweet rice—the spotlight of this month’s holiday ingredient article. Glutinous rice originates from Laos, and it dates back to 1,100 years ago. It is the main type of rice grown and consumed by Laotians of Laos and Northeast Thailand, and approximately 85% of Lao rice production is of this type. This rice flour is also referred to as waxy or sticky rice. It’s frequently used as a sauce thickener or as a central ingredient in dishes as mentioned above for celebrations around the end of the year. (Note: At most Asian markets, you’ll find two translucent bags of rice flour-one in a red label and another in green. The red version is plain rice flour while the green version is sweet and sticky.) The glutinous rice flour tends to absorb more liquid, lending itself to a rubbery, playdoh-like texture when made into dough.
Both rice flour versions are snowy-white in color and have a very fine and powdery texture. Made from grinding whole or, more frequently, broken rice grains, the process of grinding milled white rice contributes to its ultra white color. The most important distinction of rice flour from other grain flours is that rice does not contain gluten, a protein that is found in most other grains like wheat, rye or barley. For obvious reasons, rice flour is ideal for those on a gluten-free or wheat-free diet. So what’s the loss when gluten is out of the picture? Glutinous rice is sticky, but gluten is a mixture of proteins that bestows breads and bagels with their elastic, chewy, sponge-like properties. Since rice flour lacks gluten, this means that products made with this flour do not rise by themselves as they would if made with other flours like wheat flour.
Rice Flour Powers
There are a number of reasons why this particular flour is popular. Among them includes the fact that it is:
- Easily digestible, and thus often used for baby food.
- Non-allergenic: It’s great for certain dietary restrictions that require gluten- and wheat-free products.
- A major ingredient for rice milk beverages and rice-based “ice creams” that cater to people with lactose-intolerance.
- The basis for rice noodles and rice paper. If you’ve had pho noodle soups, the noodles are made of rice flour. Tissue-paper thin and fragile, rice paper serves as edible sheets used to wrap an assortment of sweet and savory fillings. The most common usage of these wrappers in the U.S. is for egg rolls, rice paper stuffed with vegetables and meat that are steamed, baked or deep-fried.
- A moisture retainer. Products made with traditional flours tend to loose moisture when frozen and then thawed. But glutinous rice flour has a better capacity for withstanding the freeze and thaw process, and keeps moisture rather well. Thus, it is highly prized for use in frozen food products. Tip: Chilling dough made of glutinous rice flour allows it to be handled and shaped much more easily!
The use of rice flour isn’t limited to making noodles, rice milk or egg roll wrappers; you’ll find them in everything from puddings or cakes to dumpling wrappers, crackers and chips. But one of our favorite foods using glutinous rice flour—the sticky and sweet counterpart—is the chewy cookie…a.k.a. mochi.
Food Focus: Mochi
As we just learned, rice cakes are very popular in numerous Asian cultures. In fact, there are more rice cake varieties than we could list in this one article. But we discovered that a certain sticky sweet rice cake—mochi—has its very own ceremony, called Mochitsuki, in Japan. Mochitsuki, which translates to “making mochi“, is the traditional mochi-pounding ceremony. In ancient Japan, rice was a valuable food used strictly for special occasions and holidays. It was also one of the first crops offered to the Gods. In Shinto—a religion in Japan—tradition, each grain of rice represented a tamashii, a human soul, so pounded rice cakes signified millions of tamashii. When the Japanese community gathered to hand-pound the rice with kine, wooden mallets, in usu, mortars, each person had the opportunity to reflect on the Gods’ blessings and the events over the course of the previous year. Thus, pounding and handling the rice was a self-purifying act. A Shinto priest (Kannushi for Head Priest or Gon Kannushi for assistant priest) would offer the mochi to the Gods on behalf of the entire community.
But for the Japanese New Year, mochi was shaped into rounded disks like the Japanese mirror, kagami, because the mirror symbolized the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu omikami. Kagami mochi is made of at least two stacked flatten balls of mochi. Sheets of white paper are placed under the cakes as symbols of purity while the elasticity of the mochi showed strength. Typically, a Satsuma mandarin orange, referred to as daidai, meaning “generation to generation,” was placed on top of the rice cake for wishes of a long life.
Today, both secular and religious Japanese have a similar rice cake making event near the end of the year. Many Japanese mochitsuki events are scheduled on the third day before the New Year. Most people consider it a Japanese custom without any religious ties, and is mostly associated with the New Year’s libations. Mochi is eaten year-round, but is still a significant food to end the year off with as well as to bring upon the new one.
Traditional & Modern-Day Mochi Making
Although many people still enjoy the spirit of traditional mochi-making at New Year’s time, as modern day would have it, there are automatic electric mochi-makers that make the process much more convenient and quick. Don’t think it’s a machine you’d put to use often? If you have a bread-maker, mochi can be made quickly this way too. The rice should be soaked and steamed separately and the machine can be started in a kneading mode.
Mochi is very sticky: after each new year, it is reported that this is the time when most sinks get clogged. The best way to steer clear of such a predicament? Throw out any excess sticky flour in the trash; try not to wash any down the drain. If some of the mochi falls down the drain, make sure to run boiling-hot water down the sink for a few minutes.
Although mochi is a beloved food on its own, it’s also an ingredient in many Japanese confections known as wagashi. Among them are: daifuku, mochi stuffed with red bean paste; ichigo daifuku, mochi wrapping a whole strawberry; and kusa mochi, mochi flavored with mugwort. Mochi can be found in soups too: oshiruko or ozenzai is a sweet azuki bean soup with pieces of mochi; and chikara udon, meaning power udon, is a bowl of udon noodles in soup topped with toasted mochi. On New Year’s Day, Zoni soup with boiled mochi is enjoyed; and kagami mochi, as we touched upon above, is a New Year decoration that is customarily broken and eaten in a ritual called kagami biraki (mirror opening).
The ever-popular Americanized version is mochi ice cream. In the U.S., many mass markets, like Trader Joe’s, sell mochi ice cream in flavors like chocolate, mango, green tea and strawberry.
Merry Mochi New Year
Whether you celebrate Chinese, Korean, any other cultural New Year—or an amalgam of many—capture the spirit of good fortune for the coming year by making something extra special for dessert this holiday. Like how pie, as discussed last month, is an American comfort food we made Asian-style, this month, we give sticky rice cake—a staple Asian food—an American touch. We filled our version of a sticky rice cookie; (mochi) with our favorite cherry pie filling and alternated between sweetened, green-tea-powder-infused butter bean paste. This is great for Christmas, but for the New Year, we’ll be making other palate-pleasing varieties. Our top choices are dark chocolate, Nutella, lavender honey, condensed milk, cherry chocolate and mango with coconut milk. See below for more tastes.
These sticky rice cookies are very chewy—but not mushy where it’ll fall apart in your mouth— and are slightly sweet with light, crispy shells.
We encourage you to fill these addicting treats with your favorite ingredients. You’ll find that the recipe is a cross between the sesame seed balls you may find at some dim sum restaurants and the classic mochi. But whatever you call it or what it may resemble, take great care when making them. Family and friends will be grateful for the delicious good luck that you wish them to have and enjoy…
Sticky Rice Cookie Recipe
Sticky Rice Cookie Ingredients
- 3 ½ cups of Glutinous Rice Flour (GRF), Preferably Erawan Brand (the clear bag with the green label at Asian markets: http://www.templeofthai.com/food/flour_sugar/sticky-1220111107.php)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup ice cold water (with no ice cubes included when mixing into contents)
- 2 tablespoons grape seed oil (or any unflavored cooking oil you prefer)
Filling Ingredients (see below)
Yields about 20 sticky cookies
Combine the sugar, ice cold water and about half (no need to measure, just approximate) of the rice flour, and mix well. Then, add the other half of the rice flour and blend with a wooden spoon. If the mix is too watery, add more flour accordingly. Add only enough flour so that the mixture is moist and supple (like fresh play-doh). It should not stick to your hands too much or leave residue, but it also should not crumble or fall apart into white chunks. Place the mochi dough in a well-sealed plastic bag and leave in the fridge for at least 2 hours so that the dough is firm but still pliant.
Prepare a cutting board or surface area and powder it with some rice flour (a handful). Pinch out about 1 ½ tablespoons of the dough and roll into a ball. Flatten the ball on the floured surface and smooth it out so that it’s about a half-inch thick and about 1 ½ inches wide. Note: if the dough sticks to your hands in chunks, just sprinkle some more rice flour to absorb the moisture. Take about a 1/2 tablespoon of your desired flavor, in our case cherry pie filling, and place it in the center of the circle. Seal into a ball by bringing the edges into the center and closing it off. Then pat the entire disk in both palms to flatten out into 2 inch disks. Make sure there are no cracks or openings that will allow the filling to ooze out while frying. The best way to pan-fry these is if the thickness is thin and even throughout. Note: Different stove tops and pans contribute to varying cooking times, but in general, you must watch these cookies while they are in the pan because they may burn after 4 minutes. This recipe may take a few practice tests before you can master the appropriate cooking times and desired cookie sizes.
Pour the oil into a non-stick pan and turn the heat on low-medium. When the oil is hot, place the filled disks onto the pan. This is the tricky part because you want to make sure they cook all the way through without burning the surface areas. Let the first side cook for about 4 minutes or until a golden brown (almost like that of light and fluffy pancakes). Do not move or flip during this time; allow them to evenly cook on one side. You can tell that they are ready to be flipped when the edges on the bottom start to brown. When you see the edges brown, flip them over and cook for about 2-3 minutes until golden. Both sides should be about the same color and when you pat the pieces down with a spatula, they should be firm. Remove from heat and place on a plate with a paper towel to soak up excess oil.
- Milk Chocolate or Dark Chocolate Squares
- Cherry Pie Filling with Chocolate Squares
- Cherry Pie Filling
- Mango Preserves with Sweetened Coconut Milk
- Lavender Honey
- Condensed Milk
- Fresh Chestnut Paste: Take cooked and shelled chestnuts and mash them. No need to sweeten.
- Butter Bean Paste with Green Tea Powder: Butter beans are another name for lima beans. This specific product can be purchased at Asian markets, and they usually come in a can as a sweetened paste.
- Fig Preserves
Traditional (you can find these kinds in the store, but are not fried) :
- Black Sesame
- Lotus Bean Paste
- Red Bean Paste
- Green Bean Paste
Alternative: Give color and flavor to the sweetened mochi by adding the fillings into the dough before shaping and pan-frying.
Merry Christmas and may good sweets and desserts begin your happy new year!
Melody grew up loving to write, especially about food, and went on to receive a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley. Her last position at a food magazine allowed her to live out her then dream job of eating fancy foods everyday and critiquing their flavors and textures for articles. Now, she works for The New York Daily News and invents Asian-fusion recipes for Asiance. You can reach Melody at email@example.com or visit her MyAsiance page at my.asiancemagazine.com/mymelody.