‘Mochi ice cream’ finds U.S. niche

Confectioners duke it out as demand increases all over the country

by Miwa Murphy

Kyodo

When Lotte Co. launched its Yukimi Daifuku ice cream encased in soft rice flour pastry in 1981, it was looking for a year-round product to strengthen its foothold in a domestic ice cream market long dominated by dairy companies.

More than two decades later, Lotte’s blockbuster confection and its spinoffs are winning the hearts of Americans as “mochi ice cream,” combining the Asian love of glutinous rice cake with the American passion for ice cream.

Following Lotte’s path, a few confectioners in the United States have managed to perfect the technology needed to keep the chewy rice dough soft at freezing temperatures, turning the East-meets-West dessert into a supermarket staple.

Los Angeles-based Mikawaya Inc. began selling its mochi ice cream in 1994 after spending more than 10 years in research and development.

The bakery, which has a high profile among Japanese-Americans for its “manju” (baked bun) and mochi cakes, now supplies mochi ice cream to national supermarket chains, including Costco and Trader Joe’s.

Joel Friedman, chief financial officer at Mikawaya, said there has been a spike in demand for mochi ice cream and the competition is getting rougher.

“We are still the only one making a mochi ice cream that tastes good and has a good mouth feel,” he said. “But recently several others are trying to copy us.”

Honolulu-based confectioner Bubbies Homemade Ice Cream & Desserts Inc. began selling mochi ice cream in 1996. It supplies gourmet stores and restaurants nationwide, including the famed Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant Nobu in New York.

Fumihiro Tahara, general manager of Nobu, said the restaurant served mochi ice cream off menu at first and added it to the regular dessert menu in October 1998. He said the restaurant receives 10 to 15 orders a night.

“There is an increase in demand all over the country,” Bubbies President Keith Robbins said. “We have been promoting the product for over four years and there is an increased interest in Japanese food in general.”

Bubbies now offers flavors that are totally un-Japanese, except perhaps for “azuki” (red bean). They include blueberry, chocolate espresso, chocolate mint, guava, tiramisu and strawberry dark chocolate chip.

Bubbies’ mochi ice cream has also caught the eye of celebrity talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who added it to her list of favorite items in the popular monthly magazine Oprah in June 2006.

“It tastes so good,” said a 19-year-old student at Mitsuwa Marketplace in New Jersey, who asked to be identified only as Zach. “I love the texture of mochi. And it’s not too sweet — I don’t eat American sweets because they’re all too sweet.”

He said he first tried mochi ice cream at a Japanese restaurant and has been a fan since.

A 48-year-old shopper said his favorite way of eating mochi ice cream is to roll it in the palm of his hands first to bring out its creaminess.

And yet mochi is still an alien flavor for some.

“I like the filling, but the exterior feels strange,” said Jane Forte, 51, who recently tried mochi ice cream for the first time.

But her mother, Patricia, 78, said the product is “neat” and would be an excellent finger food to serve guests.

Both Mikawaya and Bubbies said they developed their production techniques strictly on their own without help from Lotte. And, as manufacturers in the world’s largest ice-cream-consuming nation, they emphasize the quality of their ice cream filling.

Mikawaya’s Friedman said he uses U.S. premium-grade ice cream containing a minimum 13 percent of milk fat, which is a “totally different product” from the much-lighter Yukimi Daifuku.