While mochi ice cream is starting to show up in American grocery stores and restaurant's dessert menus with increasing frequency, its core ingredient has been a staple in the Japanese diet for hundreds of years.

While walking around your grocery store, you may notice a new frozen case filled with colorful, cold dollops. Your curiosity is piqued, and you lean over to investigate this new addition to your neighborhood store. “Mochi ice cream,” you read aloud.

“I’ve never heard of that, but they sure do look cute!” You then peruse the unusual flavor combinations of lychee, green tea and red bean paste. Even though you’re a vanilla and chocolate ice cream fan, you pop a few into your cart, looking forward to trying this new flavor and texture combination.

By trying mochi ice cream, you’re peeking into a window of Japanese culinary history that extends far beyond frozen grocery store treats.

History of Mochi

When you read the phrase “mochi ice cream,” you may assume that mochi is the ice cream itself. However, mochi is the sweet rice dough that surrounds the ice cream, and it has appeared in Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years. Mochi is eaten as a treat around the start of the new year (Mochitsuki), and it works well in both sweet and savory dishes.

During the Heian period (794-1185), the laborious process of creating mochi began with soaking the rice overnight, and then steaming and pounding the rice until it was smooth. The goal in eating the mochi was hope for good teeth and bones during the new year, since it was often tough to chew.

Mochi Ice Cream

Even though mochi has been around for hundreds of years, mochi ice cream is a relatively new invention. Businesswoman Frances Hashimoto and her husband, Joel Friedman, first introduced this sweet treat in 1994 at their L.A.-based Japanese bakery called Mikawaya.

It was during the city’s 1984 summer Olympic run that Joel traveled to Japan to escape the sweltering crowds. Here was where he brainstormed putting bite-sized pieces of ice cream inside mochi. He then worked to perfect this recipe until it debuted in Mikawaya 10 years later. The unique item was a runaway success. Today, it continues to grow in popularity as more consumers are exposed to this delicious, bite-sized delicacy.

More Than Just an Ice Cream!

Since mochi is essentially glutinous, chewy rice, it can be used in either sweet or savory dishes. Here are some ways to incorporate mochi into your culinary rotation:

1. Donut

The perfect consistency for a savory snack or lightly sweet treat, depending on what seasoning is sprinkled on top.

2. Sakura Cherry Blossom

This stunning dish’s pretty pink color evokes the cherry blossoms that bear its name. Perfect for a springtime dessert.

3. Sweet Potato

Savory and sweet snacks hit all the right notes with this sweet potato mochi. Sweet potatoes are in season during the colder months, so this one makes a great wintertime snack. Bet you can’t eat just one!

4. Strawberry Cream

Fresh strawberries hit most local markets in May and June, so this sweet creamy mochi is an excellent way to highlight seasonal fruit.

Mochi is a versatile and unique ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and one that is now getting its proper due thanks to its newest iteration as a frozen treat.