Barring some exceptions, my general policy when I am being served food by someone else is to shut up and try to eat what is put in front of me. When I began eating meat again I developed this particular policy because I had grown really tired during my eight years of vegetarianism of having to discuss my dietary restrictions when someone was treating me to a meal, whether it was at their home or at a restaurant. These days, unless I’m being served something like ikizukuri that truly offends me in some way, I try to encounter it when an open mind and a (somewhat) adventurous palate.
Not wanting to seem like the stereotypical picky American, I always adhere particularly closely to this principle when visiting my in-laws. Happily, they’ve never steered me wrong yet when it comes to food. Thanks to my husband’s mother I’ve tried some unfamiliar things that were much better than I had expected (raw horse meat, pickled octopus) and some things that were astoundingly good (soup made with the head of a sea bream, simmered shark meat).
My most recent discovery is a dish called jūnen mochi. My husband’s family makes mochi every year from the rice they grow, and when we visited a few weeks ago we were lucky enough to watch mochi-making and get to enjoy mochi that had been freshly pounded only moments before. These days they use a special machine (which can also knead bread or pizza dough) instead of making it by hand. As the owner of a blog focused on Japanese food you would think this might inspire me to take pictures, but somehow I got so involved in the rush to eat the mochi while it was still soft and piping-hot that I entirely forgot to take any photographs of the process. Oops!
A variety of other intriguing preparations were taking place as the rice was being steamed and pounded by the machine. First my mother-in-law brought out a bag of tiny gray seeds that she had picked somewhere on their property. After dry-roasting them, she handed them to my father-in-law who spent a great deal of time grinding them into a fine paste in a truly gigantic suribachi mortar. Sugar and soy sauce were added to the paste, and then pieces of mochi were quickly dipped into the suribachi before being served to the hordes of hungry grandchildren who promptly licked off all the paste before demanding more. After trying it myself, I could understand how they felt although I forced myself to eat the entire thing before asking for seconds.
To tell you the truth, had I encountered this dessert anywhere other than at the home of my in-laws I might have avoided it. Jūnen (also called egoma) is the seed of a type of shiso (perilla) plant. I wish I could say I liked shiso, but except for rare exceptions the taste of this particular plant honestly turns my stomach. So had I known that egoma was a type of shiso, I would likely have never eaten it and sadly never known the particular joys of a piece of mochi slathered with sweetened egoma paste.
Several weeks after returning to Tokyo I was still thinking about this dish. Unfortunately, my research online indicated that jūnen mochi is a specialty in some of the prefectures that are located north of Tokyo but is fairly rare in most other places. I combed my local supermarkets for egoma but wasn’t able to find it anywhere, and had nearly given up when I happened across it at Tomizawa, a baking store inside the Keio Department Store in Shinjuku.
By the way, “jūnen” means “ten years” and apparently people used to say that eating this dish would add ten years to your life. According to my husband, for some reason it’s common in his home prefecture of Fukushima to drop the final “n” and pronounce it “jūne mochi.” But no matter what you call it, egoma paste is a unique flavor that somewhat resembles sesame but is a great deal more complex and fragrant.
I did debate whether or not I should post this recipe here. If I had such a hard time finding egoma in Tokyo, it seems even more unlikely that anyone outside of Japan could get a hold of it. But although the particular flavor of egoma is what makes jūnen mochi so delicious, it would be just as good made with black sesame seeds (although according to the Japan Perilla Society egoma oil contains a great deal more alpha-Linolenic acid than sesame oil) so those would be a perfectly acceptable substitute. But despite the health benefits, unlike some savory mochi preparations which make decent afternoon snacks, jūnen mochi is extremely sweet and should be eaten in moderation to avoid a sugar crash. For this recipe I used unbleached cane sugar, but in the future I plan to give it a try with maybe honey or barley malt syrup.
This recipe makes enough paste for at around six small pieces of mochi
5 tablespoons egoma seeds (or black sesame seeds)
5 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Mochi (any shape is fine – I used small blocks)
- Dry roast the egoma seeds, swirling the pan to avoid burning them. When they become fragrant and are starting to pop, remove from the heat.
- While the seeds are still warm, grind them in a suribachi or food processor.
- Add the sugar and soy sauce to the mixture in the suribachi (if you are using a food processor, stir them in by hand). The paste should be quite runny – if it is too thick, add hot water a teaspoon at a time until it is runny enough to adhere to the mochi.
- Cook the mochi until soft. An easy way to do this is to sprinkle it with a generous amount of water, cover with a wet paper towel, and microwave until soft.
- Dip the softened mochi into the egoma paste to cover. Serve.