Mochi chronicles: Zenzai

Photo by Pauline Fujita

Red beans and rice[cakes] didn’t miss her

With the holiday season upon us the promise of seasonal Japanese treats looms large. And when I say “treats” what I really mean is mochi (sticky rice cakes). Of course, mochi can be eaten during the rest of the year but wonderfully, at holiday time, I can obsess about it freely and seem completely normal.

For those that don’t know, mochi is traditionally made by pounding cooked glutinous (sticky) rice – into a paste with a giant wooden mallet (kine) in a big mortar (usu). The act of pounding the rice is one of ritual, a dangerous dance for at least two people, one to wield the mallet, and a second who must wet and turn the developing rice paste between swings of the hammer.

Expert mochi pounders like bay area performance group Kagami Kai showcase just how rhythmic and captivating the ritual can be. Nowadays, however, you don’t have to wait for the community or family mochi pounding to get your fix. Mochi can be bought fresh or as dried cakes (kirimochi), or you can make your own at home with a hand-cranked or electric mochi machine. The latter of which is basically a rice cooker that then kneads the rice like a bread machine.

What’s so great about mochi?

If you’ve never had mochi before, it is hard to explain just why it is so wonderful. Chewy and slightly sweet, mochi is very versatile—making appearances in a variety of roles from the main starch in savoury mochi soup (ozoni) to dessert accoutrement in red bean (azuki) soup (zenzai or shiruko).

Many Asian cuisines enjoy a version of red bean soup. Even within Japan the preparation of this dish varies widely with the beans being whole or crushed, and the consistency ranging from soup to bean paste. Below is a very informal recipe for my version of it, with many options for variations to suit your taste.

Zenzai

1 cup dried azuki beans
3/4 cup sugar
lots of water
*optional heresy: a few tablespoons of coconut milk is a tasty, albeit very non-traditional (i.e. not Japanese) addition to the final soup

Place 1 cup of dried azuki beans in enough water that water level is an inch above the top of the beans (roughly 3 cups) and leave to soak overnight. The next day, drain and rinse the beans and put in a pot with roughly four times as much water (~4 cups water) and start boiling! Part way through the boiling process you will notice foam starting to form on the surface of the water. I prefer to skim off as much of this foam as possible as I find leaving it in changes the texture of the soup. Cook until the beans are still a bit firmer than you’d like for the final product.

At this point some recipes call for you to drain all the water and resume boiling with fresh water. I find if I drain the beans completely, then I lose too much of the flavor and color. So instead, I remove about a cup of the bean broth and replace it with fresh water.

Add the 3/4 cup of sugar (or more if you prefer a sweeter soup), and resume boiling until the beans are desired consistency, adding more water as necessary.

Lazy mochi addition: I simply boil some kiri mochi and add to the soup.

Stay tuned for a slightly-less-lazy way to make dango (dumpling) mochi to add to the soup or for your other mochi needs!


About Pauline Fujita

Pauline Fujita lives in Santa Cruz, California. A biologist by trade and a glutton at heart, she's especially interested in Japanese and Japanese influenced food.

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