There is much more to mochi than a simple ice cream treat—in Japan, mochi refers to the coating that surrounds the ice cream, not the ice cream treat itself, and it has several culinary and celebratory uses.

Over the years, mochi has gained a large following in America as a delectable Japanese dessert. Appearing as a small ball of ice cream surrounded by a somewhat chewy coating, mochi is a delight of texture and flavor.

However, there is much more to this simple ice cream treat. In Japan, mochi refers to the coating that surrounds the ice cream, not the ice cream treat itself. The coating is actually made from a type of rice called glutinous or sticky rice that is pounded into a sticky paste and then molded into buns.

The mochi has been a huge part of Japanese culture for centuries. While people eat it all year round, it also plays a large role in New Year’s celebrations and festivals. And, there are several culinary uses of it, many of which have nothing to do with ice cream or dessert.

Culinary Uses

Although you can find mochi in Japanese supermarkets all year around, the season starts during November and end in March. In other words, it is something people in Japan eat during the winter, especially around the New Year’s. The most common form is in a dried square form, kirimochi.

As a dessert, it’s used to make daifuku, which is simply a small ball of mochi stuffed with a sweet filling, typically red bean paste. Pieces of mochi are also the main ingredients of a sweet soup, oshiruko, which is a sweet azuki beans soup. And another traditional Japanese New Year’s treat is Kinako-Mochi, which is a treat that has been toasted and topped with sugar and kinako, a sweet flour.

Mochi can be a great addition to several savory dishes as well. Simply toast small pieces and add to soups and stews, or use it as a topping for noodle dishes. Mochi balls made with tofu is also an easy party appetizer to make for a Japanese dinner! And fried mochi seasoned with soy sauce and wrapped in seaweed, known as Isobeyaki, is a salty, savory snack.

Mochi for New Year’s Celebrations

The pounding of the mochi “dough” into buns and assorted shapes is a large part of New Year’s celebration. Many used to watch or take part in the pounding ceremonies, known as mochitsuki. Though this practice is no longer commonplace in Japan, mochi is still a main component of commemorating the New Year (and other celebrations).

Placing a particular type of mochi cake, Kagami-mochi, on a family altar signifies the hope for a good new year. And people in Japan traditionally eat a special soup with rice cake, Ozon, on New Year’s Day. There are several regional variations of Ozoni—here is a recipe for one of the more common Ozoni variations to try!