How Mochi Ice Cream Took Over the Freezer Aisle

Mochi ice cream is now available in large grocery chains nationwide, making the Japanese rice flour dessert a household name.

Mar 22 2021, 11:00am

Growing up, I used to always look forward to the end of my family's monthly shopping trips to the Asian grocery store. As a reward for my patience, my parents would hand me a cold package of colorful, sweet mochi to eat in the car—and I’d get home with a film of white dust on my shirt from the rice balls’ starch coating. In Pennsylvania in the early 00s, I always thought of mochi—Japanese rice cakes made by pounding glutinous, short grain rice and water into a paste and then shaping them—as a delicacy you had to go to a specialized store to find. It wasn't the sort of thing you ran into at the suburban Acmes and Giants where my parents used to shop.  

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Over the past two decades, however, mochi has become practically ubiquitous. While the chewy rice balls of my childhood were filled with sweetened bean pastes, mochi is now commonly found stuffed with ice cream. Whole Foods added self-serve mochi ice cream freezers to many locations in 2017; the New York City grocery chain Food Bazaar where I shop most often recently followed suit; and bigger boxes of mochi ice cream fill frozen aisles in large chains like Walmart and Target. Recently, the U.K. mochi ice cream brand Little Moons had a viral moment on TikTok.

Outside the frozen section, mochi has picked up in popularity in the form of trendy doughnuts; Trader Joe’s even sells a boxed, ube-flavored mochi pancake and waffle mix. In 2020, the treat appeared in Netflix’s Dash & Lily, where Dash (Austin Abrams) takes part in a mochi-making class—before returning to the streaming service this year, as the namesake for one of the eponymous puppets on Michelle Obama’s new food and travel show for kids, Waffles + Mochi. Mochi is also the name of a fluffy, Instagram-famous dog; a cute, functional stationery brand; a skincare trend; and an online publication for Asian American women. 

It's not hard to see why people love mochi. The cute and often colorful balls are pillowy and pliable in texture, often with a sweet surprise inside. In spin-offs like mochi doughnuts, pancakes, or brownies, the rice flour adds a distinctive chewiness. But how did mochi go from Asian grocery stores to everywhere? 

Not all mochi includes ice cream, but mochi ice cream has been an integral part of its increased popularity, according to Brian Kito, owner of Los Angeles’s Fugetsu-Do Confectionery. "The ice cream makes it more familiar for people to try," he said. 

In his experience, people are much more familiar with mochi as a category today than they were in 1986, when he took over the mochi-focused sweets shop that his family opened in 1903. The late-00s popularity of fro-yo places like Pinkberry also helped things along, he said, making mochi toppings mainstream throughout the country. While Fugetsu-Do doesn’t make mochi ice cream—the shop focuses on traditional sweet bean pastes, and newer fillings like chocolate ganache and peanut butter—Kito has watched the product’s popularity rise over the decades. 

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Though mochi itself dates back to the Nara period, from 710 to 794, in Japan—where in sweet and savory form, it has long been a part of New Year's festivities—the invention of mochi ice cream in the United States is widely credited to Frances Hashimoto, whose family started the Los Angeles-based Japanese sweet shop Mikawaya in 1910. In 1994, after ten years of research and development, Hashimoto and her husband Joel Friedman began market-testing their mochi ice cream in Hawaii, where it was an immediate success. Eventually, grocery stores like Ralphs, Safeway, and Trader Joe’s were selling the product, and in 1998, restaurants like New York's high-end Nobu had added mochi ice cream to their menu (albeit from a competing company, Bubbies).

"By being able to mix the American ice cream with mochi, it brought more awareness to the general public about one of the most important food traditions in Japan," Noriaki Ito, a bishop at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple and a friend of Hashimoto’s, told KPCC, when Hashimoto died in 2012. 

Today, mochi—and mochi ice cream in particular—is one of the most widely recognizable Japanese desserts in the US. Following Hashimoto's death, the investment group Century Park Capital purchased Mikawaya in 2015; two years later, it launched the related mochi ice cream brand My/Mochi—with the goal of "bringing mochi to the masses," said Russell Barnett, My/Mochi's managing director and chief marketing officer. 

My/Mochi’s product—with flavors like cookies and cream, green tea, and dulce de leche, along with seasonal offerings like apple pie à la mode—is now available in upwards of 30,000 stores nationwide. "It's really led to this whole mochi renaissance," said Barnett. 

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What sets mochi desserts apart is their chewy, stretchy, and smooth texture. In Taiwan, there’s a term for that specific springy mouthfeel: "Q," or if they’re extra chewy, "QQ." Though that elastic pillowiness is common in Asian sweets, it’s less popular in the American canon of cakes and cookies.

Christopher Wong, co-founder and marketing director of New York City boutique mochi ice cream brand Mochidoki, has pleasant memories of mochi ice cream from his childhood in Hong Kong; on their way home from school, he said, he and his grandmother would split a two-pack of ice cream. But when he and co-founder Ken Gordon started their mochi ice cream company in 2015, they had to educate non-Asian American consumers about mochi’s texture. They’d compare it to cookie dough, dumplings, and ravioli, Wong recalled. 

Barnett from My/Mochi says the familiarity of ice cream has helped catalyze interest in mochi itself. "Consumers can deal with one change, and the one change here is dough on ice cream," he said. That’s why the company’s name is simple and why the flavors are conventional: to reduce barriers. In 2003, Fugetsu-Do, the Los Angeles confectionery, started filling strawberry mochi with peanut butter, evoking the classic PB&J, for a similar reason. "That's one of the things to get over when you're talking about a traditional Japanese dish that maybe not many people have seen," Kito said, explaining the reasoning behind the product. "To get past [that unfamiliarity] to something that they can connect to in their head."

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Once people familiarize themselves with mochi ice cream, they learn to appreciate its subtleties. Everyone within Mochidoki, for instance, has a different preference for how long to let the ball thaw, resulting in textural variations, Wong said. Right out of the freezer, you can bite through the rice flour dough and it still feels firm; wait five minutes, and the mochi tempers into something softer and more delicate. That juxtaposition of textures—chewy, pillowy wrapper and cold ice cream center—is what makes mochi ice cream so different from other ways of eating ice cream in the US.

With the American public's increasing familiarity with mochi, Wong has found another teaching opportunity. "When you hear 'mochi' now, I think most people automatically think of mochi ice cream," he said. If someone already knows and loves the ice cream version, though, they may be open to learning more about other uses for mochi. Mochidoki hasn't ventured into those yet, as the inclusion of ice cream is core to the company's identity, Wong said. But, he added, since Mochidoki's tagline is "imagination in every bite," he "can't really say no to anything" in the future. 

The greater popularity of mochi ice cream and other mochi desserts has coincided with bigger shifts in American eating. Kito pointed to the fact that 25 years ago, the thought of eating raw fish was a much tougher sell, but we’re now in an era where sushi is sold in supermarkets across the US. So while their parents might still be the "Drumstick generation," Barnett said, Gen Z and millennial consumers who have grown up with a greater variety of foods are more open to trying new things. Add food influencers to that mix, and we've got a culture that’s much more interested in novel eating experiences—especially ones that play well on Instagram, like a tearable, stretchy ball of ice cream

Still, while mochi ice cream is available in large grocery stores all over the country, we probably have a long way to go before a large percentage of American households is buying it. "It'll be down the road a while; it's just not going to be next week," said Barnett. To him, though, once people have tried it, the experience is easy to love. "That first bite really where you get the creaminess that comes with the pillowiness—that's when everybody's trying not to force the smile, and the corners of their mouths go up, and like, We're home."

Tagged:

japanese food, TRENDS IN FOOD, mochi, mochi ice cream, reheated

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