Japanese food is on the rise. According to a 2019 international YouGov study of more than 25,000 people in 24 countries, Japanese is the world's third-most popular cuisine. In the UK, meanwhile, Japanese food is liked by 57% of people and a CGA and AlixPartners report last year found that the number of Japanese restaurants had climbed by 44% to 305 restaurants.
The growth was driven by the expansion of brands such as Shoryu and Yo! Sushi, the latter of which is so confident in the continuing popularity of the cuisine that it has opened its first few venues in a new collection of full-service restaurants called Yo! Kitchen.
Drawing on the tradition of the izakaya, an informal Japanese style of pub with affordable snacks, the menu features 40 new dishes ranging from ramen bowls to salmon teriyaki and robata-grilled options.
It’s fair to say though that while Japanese dishes like ramen, yakitori, katsu curry and sushi have become pretty familiar to UK diners. The Japanese sweet pastry dish mochi, on the other hand, has failed to take off.
But that could be about to change.
Mochi moving on up
Mochi are little balls (about the size of a golf ball) of chewy rice-flour dough filled traditionally with red bean paste.
Believing that the traditional recipe wouldn’t appeal to Western consumers, Japanese brother and sister pair Howard and Vivien Wong launched an ice cream filled version 10 years ago under the brand name Little Moons.
They started out selling to Japanese restaurants, followed in 2015 by a listing in Whole Foods Market, and now, with their products stocked in Waitrose and Tesco, the mochi concept is really starting to take off.
With their mochi – which is available in 12 flavours, including two vegan variants – in so much demand Little Moons has just opened a new £3.5m factory in London to ramp up production.
“Japanese food is everywhere now – ramen is huge – and now mochi has caught on in the last year. I think more and more people will try it this year as we increase our distribution, especially outside of London,” Vivien Wong tells Food Spark.
Texture and taste
She believes the product’s appeal lies in its texture, its depth of flavour (“our mango version is undeniably mango as we use fresh mango puree”), and the nostalgia factor.
“It’s the soft, chewy sweet dough made of rice flour that’s steamed which makes it a Japanese mochi, but the ice cream inside is an Italian gelato recipe,” explains Wong.
“A lot of people love that chewy texture and they’re familiar with it through eating dumplings like dim sum or gyoza.
“I think people are travelling a lot more these days and when I sample the products a lot of people say to me ‘I love this, I had it when I went to Japan’.”
She also believes the small size of mochi is another reason why it’s growing in appeal, plus the fact that, being made from rice flour, it’s naturally gluten-free.
“Snacking is definitely becoming more of a trend here – people love eating on the go, everyone is time poor but they just want something delicious to pop in their mouths and mochi is just a small sweet treat,” says Wong.
“If you scoop out ice cream from a pot you could be eating 150 calories, whereas if you’re just taking a ball of Little Moons mochi you know it’s 32g and you know exactly how many calories you’re consuming.
“Its small size has definitely added to its popularity and because it’s made from rice flour it’s all gluten-free.”