The untold truth of mochi ice cream

Sticky rice flour may not be a staple in most American pantries, but it's the key ingredient in the making of what is now a popular American treat. What used to be a sweet item found only in Asian stores and Japanese restaurants has now gone mainstream, and today it can be found in just about any supermarket from Trader Joe's to Whole Foods — and every grocery store in between.

Mochi ice cream may be a late 20th-century invention, but the idea of pounding sticky rice into flour and then turning that into a sweet or savory pastry case has been around for centuries. Vision Times says Japan's mochi-making tradition could date as far back as 300 BC, when the treat was made with red rice and then served to the Emperor and nobility. Mochi was also made to be presented as a temple offering to the gods.

Mochi ice cream is an original fusion treat

While mochi is a uniquely Japanese delicacy, it may surprise you to know that the frozen version of the treat is as American as Baskin Robbins. CNN says mochi ice cream was born in a Japanese-American bakery in 1980s Los Angeles. Frances Hashimoto and her husband, Joel Friedman, were running Hashimoto's family business: a fourth-generation family bakery named Mikawaya. 

During a trip to Japan, Friedman came across a sweet treat he'd not seen before — a ball of sweet bean paste encased in a glutinous sticky dough. "That treat stuck with me," Friedman told CNN. "I remember thinking it was a cute idea but something wasn't quite right about it. We were already making pastry with mochi, which is rice dough. So we thought, why not make a treat like what I had in Japan. But instead of filling it with bean paste, we'll put in ice cream." 

It took 10 years of trying, but the couple finally got it right — and mochi ice cream was born.

Mochi ice creams used to come in just three flavors

Hashimoto and Friedman's original mochi ice creams were filled with flavors that were probably more at home on an Asian palate. When the ice cream mochi made its debut in 1994, decades would have to pass before matcha became a thing, but back in the mid-'90s, the first mochi ice cream balls came in green tea, red bean, and mango. 

Likely because of their textures and flavors, the couple marketed their fusion mochis to Asian food stores and restaurants, but it was only a matter of time before the frozen Japanese-American treats eventually made their way into Kroger supermarkets, Safeway, and Trader Joe's. By this time, mochi ice cream had become the most popular product produced by the Mikawaya bakery. And after Hashimoto passed away in 2012, Friedman sold the bakery to equity firm Century Park Capital Partners, who shuttered the family business to focus on producing just mochi ice cream.

Mochi ice cream flavors were reinvented to suit the modern-day palate

Joel Friedman and Frances Hashimoto may have invented mochi ice cream, but it was Russell Barnett who brought it to a wider audience. Barnett took the traditional flavors he said he had grown up with and brought the treat into the 21st century in a range of flavors including Chocolate Sundae, Dulce de Leche, S'mores, and Salted Caramel (via My/Mo Mochi Ice Cream). He even added non-dairy and vegan lines because he was looking to appeal to a wider crowd. In December 2019, CNN reported that Barnett's company, My/Mo Mochi had close to 90 percent of market share, and retail sales for My/Mo Mochi was at $175 million.

The almost meteoric rise in the popularity of mochi ice cream in America has barely caused a ripple in Japan, where people continue to enjoy mochi during the New Year holidays. It is enjoyed as daifuku, which is filled with sweet bean paste, and as the rather exotic Cow Poop chocolate mochi made in Hokkaido and marketed with the slogan, "Eat poop and smile every day!" (via Sora News 24). But Sora News 24 also says that mochi has a dark side — it is known for causing the most choking-related food deaths in Japan, where people (often the elderly) have been known to consume the treat without chewing it properly.