Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Grilled Mochi

I did some consulting work for a nursing home for Japanese-Americans, and was talking with a Japanese-American friend about it afterwards, remarking on how important it is for people - especially the elderly and those who may otherwise feel confused or detached from their environment - to have access to food that they enjoy and recognize.

My quintessential comfort food is macaroni and cheese, or maybe tuna-noodle casserole (hold the peas!) And with a grandmother in an assisted-living community, I know that these dishes frequently make appearances on the menu, and likely are appreciated by most of the residents for their bland-but-soothing flavors and easy to chew and digest texture. What was great for me about the consulting job that I did was thinking about the elderly Japanese-Americans who literally were wasting away from not eating, rather than consuming scoops of greasy noodles or oily potatoes. Hamburgers and french fries weren't the last pieces of their younger lives that they could still enjoy, they were foreign and sometimes rather revolting stand-ins for nutrition. Where was the rice and stir-fry vegetables? Where were the toothsome buckwheat noodles and savory miso broth? You can keep your dark-stained water of rehydrated decaf coffee crystals... how about a nice steaming cup of antioxidant-laden green tea?

My friend shared with me that a comfort food in her house, where her Japanese grandmother still does much of the cooking even well into her 80's, is mochi. I have often had the mochi ice cream balls, without even realizing that mochi is the rice dough surrounding the ice cream, and is used in countless preparations, ice cream being the primary version to cross into American ethnic food aisles. At the Asian market, mochi is sold in balls or cubes (which in theory could then be rolled out and wrapped around a scoop of ice cream). It is basically just rice... glutinous rice is pounded into a paste with water and formed into a shape. The ones I purchased were balls about the diameter of a golf ball, but slightly flattened, and frozen.

My friend told me that what she likes to do with it is put squares of mochi directly into a hot skillet, where they will puff up and get crispy, then dip them in a mixture of soy sauce and brown sugar. I wasn't sure that there wasn't more to it than that- you know, the crucial step that she just know and it seems so obvious she forgets to tell me. So I looked it up and found this great blog post that says basically the same thing but goes into slightly more detail with an actual recipe:

Surely you've put a marshmallow in the microwave before? Heating mochi on the grill is a very similar experience... watching it puff, swell, sure that it will burst into a sticky mess, but somehow it stays contained while garnering a smokey singe from the griddle and a gooey interior. It was recommended to microwave the mochi for a few seconds first anyway, just to get it soft enough to cut into appropriate shapes for grilling. The real fun started with my irregularly cut hunks morphing into alien forms which made the whole thing feel more than a cultural and culinary adventure, but an artistic one as well. This made for a science experiment and an ethnic exploration all rolled into one snack.

It won't be my go-to comfort food, but I can definitely appreciate how the warm, chewy, soft balls of dough with a salty-sweet dipping sauce could serve a similar role as a freshly-baked chocolate chip cookie or a hot grilled cheese sandwich, and grilling a mound of mochi is a lot more fun to watch than a slab of cheese melting on bread. 


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