If you’ve ever wandered through a Japanese market, chances are that you’ve noticed the dainty and lovely confections collectively known as wagashi. Diminutive, they can often take on gorgeous forms, such as the most perfect-looking peach painted with the subtle blush of summer. Bite into one and you may be surprised. The peach skin could be made of chewy sticky rice and the flesh may be made of sweetened bean paste. Several years ago, renowned Japanese food expert Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku among other titles, urged me to include wagashi recipes in Asian Dumplings but I demurred as the specific ingredients and precise techniques seemed way beyond mortals. Recently, however, Chef Michael Siegel of Betelnut restaurant in San Francisco convinced me otherwise.
Siegel and I met at the Culinary Institute of America’s World of Flavors conference last November 2009 in Napa. Alexander Ong, a partner and the executive chef of Betelnut introduced us, and Mike and I hit it off over a discussion of our mutual love for pastrami and bagels. Chef Siegel is Jewish-American and two years ago, his professional skills and innate curiosity brought him to Betelnut, a long-standing, acclaimed pan-Asian restaurant. He is Ong’s right-hand man in the kitchen, and Ong’s management style is to encourage his team to experiment all the while staying true to traditions. (If you go, reserve one of the three beggar’s chicken cooked in lotus leaf and clay that are cooked each night!)
After that initial meeting, I lunched at Betelnut and for dessert, Ong sent out the above plate of three spheres. The waiter presented it as the “mochi trio” – and indeed, they had the unmistakable opaque white appearance of sticky (glutinous) rice. My eyebrows rose with interest. Inside, each mochi dumpling contained a different type of chocolate ganache: white, milk, and dark. The little garnishes of marmalade, salted caramel sauce, and a Kahlua and espresso cream offered flavor counterpoints to the rich filling and slightly sweet wrapper. When I asked Ong for the low-down on the mochi dumplings, he proudly said they were Siegel’s creation. I promptly asked if Siegel would share his story and technique. We scheduled a demo a few weeks later.
Snowy White Lips
Siegel is an undaunted eater and found himself with a Japanese mochi addiction. “I couldn’t get enough of it. I’d eat so much mochi that my lips turned white from all the starch coating on the outside but I was hooked on the pleasant sweet chewy texture of the mochi. The issue was how to present it to our customers,” he explained.
“Let’s face it,” Siegel continued. “People are not familiar with Asian sweets. The textures and flavors are different and can be challenging.” What could he do to get people to try and then appreciate Asian food traditions? Traditional wagashi fillings such as green tea and sweet bean fillings are a hard thing to sell to uninitiated diners. Restaurants and chefs are under pressure to meet the bottom line. Siegel is persistent and in late 2008, he focused his sites on coming up with a mochi something for Betelnut. His 8 to 12 month journey to mochi mastery involved:
- Countless hours of experimentation and practice
- Sampling wagashi in San Francisco’s Japantown at places like the Benkyodo baking company
- Convincing Ong to purchase a mochi-making machine
- Considering showcasing the mochi-making machine in Betelnut’s front window (that was a bad idea)
- Watching hours of YouTube mochi-making videos
- Researching books on wagashi and trying to follow the vague instructions
- Attending wagashi/mochi classes at the Japanese Cultural Community Center in San Francisco
After figuring out how to make the mochi from Koda Farm's mochiko flour (a staple in my Asian dumpling pantry), Siegel pondered the filling and settled on chocolate ganache, a brilliant strategy to captivate the palates of Betelnut customers. Getting the ganache right so that it would soften just so under the rice cover, preparing and handling the mochi properly so it had good flavor and texture, and making sure the restaurant could produce the confection on a consistent basis – not to mention selling it to their clientele – were all challenges that Siegel had to overcome to get his mochi dumplings on Betelnut’s menu.
After a good year, Siegel triumphed. He also trained his cooks to make them, saying that “They now make them better than me.” Siegel’s mochi trio of dumplings – which I liken to mochi wrapped truffles – started out as a special and have been well received. Go to Betelnut if you are in San Francisco and ask for the mochi!
If you're geographically challenged, wait for a couple of days and I’ll post up my mochi covered chocolate truffle recipe, which I learned from Siegel and adapted for home cooks. They're a little tricky but a good alternative to the real thing by Michael Siegel.
- How Betelnut restaurant continues to tantalize and surprise (on Carolyn Jung's Foodgal.com)