Saturday, April 09, 2005

Mission: Sakura Mochi

Happy Spring! It's cherry blossom (sakura) season in Japan, and according to this map,the cherry blossoms in my hometown of Nagoya was in full bloom on March 31st. Yes, they really do have a sakura forecast maps. The Japanese are that serious about their cherry blossoms.

Hanami, which directly translates to Flower Gazing, is a national event in Japan. Typically, co-workers and corporate associates have hanami events together, and there are numerous anecdotes about young interns being forced to spend a good part of the camping out under the 'best' cherry tree. This doesn't sound so bad to me, but apparently, it's some kind of insult to the intern, since it means that he's dispensable, or some ego/pride thing like that. Also common to the hanami theme is the binge drinking, where social drinking gets out of hand and novice drinkers or non-drinkers are forced into consuming more than their bodies can possibly handle. Even death at hanami events have precedence. What a way to go...

Anyway, I celebrated Spring with my fabulous new cooking friends a couple of weeks ago by making the very Spring treat, Sakura Mochi. Literally translated as Cherry Blossom Rice Cakes, these treats are sweet-red bean filled balls glutenous rice goodness. Glutenous rice is also known as 'sweet rice' around here, although the flavors itself are only very subtly sweet. It is extra-sticky and the Japanese call it 'mochi gome' or 'rice cake rice', since it's so glutenous that it is the rice of choice when making mochi.

When I walked in, Melissa, who may know more about Japanese food than I do even though she is not Japanese and did not grow up in Japan, and her friend, Karen, had done all of the prep work. If you want the recipe, you'll have to leave a comment for her here...

Karen made the perfectly pink-tinted rice.
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Melissa made a pot of heavenly anko (red bean paste) from scratch. I've only attempted this once before, and after that, I always just bought my anko, since I realized it took SO very long and mine was not as good as the store-bought variety. Opening a package of anko from the store takes 5 seconds - my anko project took close to a day when everything was done. Melissa's anko made me think twice about buying the package stuff, though, since hers had a much stronger bean flavor than anything I've bought at the store (including ones in Japan) and I tasted more bean than sugar. It was much more complex in flavor and scent than the store bought anko, which really tastes more like textured sugar. The secret was in adding just the right amount of sugar as the beans reduced, therefore allowing us fine-tuned control of the sweetness.

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You will notice that my hand-model this time has slender fingers and smooth skin. Lana took over the Papa Bear's job for this post! Lana placed a smear of rice on wax paper and placed an anko ball on top. We found that making anko balls first was vastly easier than trying to multi-tasking during Mission: Taiyaki, so we followed the same plan this time.

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Anko balls. Sounds like monkfish (ankou, but often spelled as anko here in the US) testicles... By the way, anko and an are the same thing - red bean paste. They can be pureed (koshi-an; 'smoothed' an) or beany-y (tsubu-an; 'dotted'-an). Anko and an are the same thing, except an has a more upscale feel than anko. Anko has a more country-side feel to it, where you expect anko at a rural tea shop, while an is served at a urban Kyoto tea shop. Lana had the perfect analogy for this, but it's escaping my memory. Maybe Lana will leave me a comment and remind me what her analogy was...

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Anyway, we folded the rice over and covered the anko balls. Almost done!

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And then, we covered the rice-anko ball with a grape leaf. The original recipe calls for a cherry blossom leaf, but Melissa, after her extensive trying, could not get her hands on them. The grape leaves were a close substitution, and it did its job just as well as the cherry blossom leaves, giving that characteristic saltiness to the rice/anko/leaf trio.

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We soon figured out that our sakura mochis were SUPER-supersized, since we had enough rice to make something like 40 sakura mochis but when we were half way through the rice, we had only made 8 or so sakura mochis. Ops. We switched strategies and scrapped smearing the rice on the table, instead opting to form a thin layer of rice on our hands and doing the entire process in our hands. This worked well, and we made significantly smaller sakura mochis after the change in strategy.

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This picture reminds me of a 'game' my sister and I played with Lego when we were kids. We'd have one headless Lego man, and he'd go around taking other Lego people's heads, chasing after the other Lego people saying "Bi Bo. Bi Bo. Bi Bo". The headless crowd would slowly take over the Lego population. Sometimes, I'd get kinda freaked out by the concept and have scary dreams about the headless Lego man trying to come get my head. Actually, I still nurse a fear for decapitation and strange Bi-bo-bi-bo-bi-bo men...

Where I am going with this is that... the anko balls in the background look like they are being cornered by the spreading population of sakura mochis. They remind me of the Lego people who still had heads, terrified by the onslaught of rice-coated versions of themselves. They look like they're shivering with fear, yet proclaiming "Resist the rice-coats! Fight the invasion!". Unfortunately, in the end, they were overtaken...

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Just when I thought I was done, I learned that there was one more additional step. Final steaming! The compiled sakura-mochis had to go in for one last nap in the steam room. We concluded that this was likely to soften up the leaves. We made a trip to Polly Ann's for an ice cream treat in between, but that's a story of its own for another day!

The final product was yummy, yummy, yummy! The glutenous rice was the perfect consistency to caress the bean flavor of the anko, while the saltiness from the leaves heightened the sweetness. Melissa leads us through another successful treat-making mission!!!

On a final note, the San Francisco Japantown is having their Cherry Blossom Festival this coming weekend and the weekend after that. Check it out!

5 comments:

umelissa said...

Alice, I wish I knew even half as much about Japanese food as you do! Many thanks to you and the Papa Bear for coming over to stir and taste test the an. Next time we'll use plastic wrap to shape the rice so we can make more mochi instead of washing a cup of rice off our hands and down the sink. :) The recipe we used was from Shizuo Tsuji's Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. I'm happy to post it upon request. Let's get together again soon for good food, good tea, and of course, good company!

xeniadono said...

Konban wa! I´ve saw your Blog and i´m surprissed because i love japanese cuisin and you´ve done sakuramochi (I love them) I think you are a great cooker because i make japanese cook too and i know how difficult it has. Omedetouuuu!!
Xeniadono

Anonymous said...

Sorry to drag up old posts, but I would very much love to see the recipe you used! I am having a very hard time finding a sweet mochi recipe, and have moved to a town where it is impossible to buy them!
Thanks very much!

Maggie

Anonymous said...

same here...
I've spent many hours online looking for recipes, but the pictures always look like the rice isn't as fluffy as the consistency in your pictures. Laura

Anonymous said...

My friend and I also wish to learn how to make Sakura Mochi. Could you please be so kind to post up the recipe u used?

Rose