Once upon a time, the Old Man of the Moon decided to visit the Earth. Disguised as a beggar, he came across three friends who lived together in the forest – Fox (Kitsune), Monkey (Saru) and Rabbit (Usagi) and asked them for something to eat. Monkey leapt up into the trees to gather fruit and nuts; Fox ran to a stream to catch a fish; these they presented to the old man. Rabbit raced around the forest grassland finding nothing but grass and returned forlorn to the teasing of his two friends. Desperate to help their visitor, Rabbit asked him to build a fire. Leaping into the flames, he offered himself to the old man to eat. Quickly the beggar changed back to his true form and pulled Rabbit from the fire, restoring him to life. He thanked each of the forest friends for their generous kindness but to Rabbit he said, “Your selfless sacrifice was the kindest of all. I will take you to the moon with me!” To this day, if you look up at the moon, you can see Rabbit there, pounding mochi in his mortar and pestle.
This is the story of Tsuki no Usagi (Moon Rabbit), told to me recently by a Japanese friend and related here in my own words.
The myth originated 2400 years ago in the Indian Buddhist Jātaka tales, stories about the previous lives of Buddha in both human and animal form. One such tale tells the story of a monkey, an otter, a jackal and a rabbit, similarly called upon to find food for a beggar. When the rabbit offered himself in the fire, the beggar revealed himself as a god and drew the likeness of the rabbit on the Moon for all to see.
As is often the case, the details of the story changed as it spread. In China, the rabbit pounds medicinal herbs to make an elixir of life for Chang’e, the Moon Goddess.
Only in Japan is Rabbit thought to pound rice for the creation of delicious mochi (rice cakes).
Short-grain japonica glutinous rice (known in Japan as mochigome) has a higher protein concentration and less amylose in its starch than other types of rice, which results in a soft but firm consistency – it is delightfully chewy, the gummy elasticity a highly prized texture.
Traditional mochi are made by pounding soaked and steamed mochigome into a smooth paste. The paste is formed into a variety of shapes, often with a filling of sweet azuki bean paste. In other variations, flavourings are mixed into the paste itself, and these days there are many different fillings to choose from. Mochi is enjoyed in many dishes, savoury and sweet; one of my personal favourites is mitarashi dango – solid balls of mochi served on a stick with a sweet-savoury soy sauce glaze.
Another popular sweet is mochi ice cream – a ball of smooth, delicious ice cream wrapped in a thin layer of chewy mochi. These are a relatively recent phenomenon, appearing for the first time in the early eighties but they have quickly gained popularity across Japan.
I first encountered Little Moons mochi ice creams two years ago, at a pop up dinner by United Ramen. Asking afterwards about the utterly gorgeous ice cream mochi dessert, I learned they were made by Little Moons, a fledgling company launched by entrepreneur siblings Howard and Vivien Wong. Several months later, I came across them again when I visited Kanada-ya ramenya just after they opened. Today, Little Moons are served by several Japanese restaurants across London including Bone Daddies, Tonkotsu and Shoryu Ramen. Ramenandmochitastic!
Howard and Vivien worked with Nobu’s head patisserie chef, Regis Cursan to develop their range, and have updated the new Japanese classic by using artisan gelato fillings in six flavours – currently Vanilla, Toasted Sesame, Coconut, Matcha Green Tea, Mango and Raspberry. Little Moons mochi are hand-rolled in London to the traditional Japanese method, and the range is free from artificial flavourings, colours or preservatives. The mochi are also gluten free and less than 100 calories per ball.
The Wongs have also created a second brand, Tsuki Mochi under which they sell mochi truffles. The Dark Chocolate ones are filled with Belgian chocolate ganache and dusted with cocoa. Tsuki Mochi also make a Yuzu Lemon Cheesecake edition which I must, as a yuzu addict, try soon!
Last weekend I hosted a lovely afternoon tea featuring all six Little Moons mochi ice creams and the Tsuki Mochi dark chocolate ganache mochi. We enjoyed these with some delicious Adagio Teas served in an absolutely beautiful Japanese teaware set with an elegant metallic grey finish.
The mochi ice cream were as good as I remembered (though I do miss the wonderful pineapple flavour I first fell in love with at the ramen pop up dinner). My favourites were the mango and the matcha, though I loved them all. Pete’s favourite was the toasted sesame – he also loved the flavour of the raspberry gelato but wasn’t sure it worked so well in a mochi wrapping. Our guests both favoured the rich vanilla, flecked with vanilla seeds, with the coconut and mango also winning high praise.
All four of us adored the mochi truffles – these had a superbly rich, dark chocolate flavour and a light mousse-like texture within.
On the tea front, we started with Adagio’s kukicha, a blend of green tea leaves and stems. The tea had a powerful aroma as it brewed, but was light and refreshing to drink. Later we switched to genmai cha, the nutty flavours of toasted popped rice were particularly satisfying on a cold November day.
Of course, mochi are far more than a sweet treat to enjoy with afternoon tea – they make superb desserts after a meal, particularly the mochi ice cream which are stored in the freezer and need just a few minutes to soften before serving. Although small, they are surprisingly filling and just one or two balls would be perfect after a meal.
Little Moons come in a box of six and are currently stocked by Whole Foods (£5.99) and Partridges (£6.95). Tsuki Mochi truffles come in a box of four and are available from Selfridges (£4.50).