There’s been a kind of mochi fan club rapidly inducting members in the Bay Area over the past few years, devouring everything from the butter mochi cake at Liholiho to the mochi-topped ice cream in a fish cone at Uji Time. Wenter Shyu of Third Culture Bakery in Berkeley believes the bouncy rice flour cakes suddenly became the coolest kid in school as Californians increasingly eschewed wheat. “It’s a dessert that’s magically gluten free, instead of trying to make something gluten free,” he remarks. “But while it might be a newfound thing here, in Asian cultures it’s been around for hundreds of years.”
“When you bite into that chewy, squishy texture, it triggers joy in your brain,” the mochi man says, explaining the neuroscience. “You can’t be sad while eating mochi. You just can’t.”
Third Culture certainly contributed to the local obsession. The guys are known for their trademark mochi muffin, which is outstandingly dense and chewy, and flavored with coconut and pandan. The bakery is a rainbow fun factory in Berkeley, ringing out a colorful array of mochi muffins and donuts. Chef Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu are partners in both mochi and life, and the guys are currently sheltering in place in Colorado, where they have a second location and recently bought a house after more than a dozen years in the Bay. But the Berkeley bakery is in good hands and has remained open, offering employees 50 percent of their usual hours. Now, just in time for Mother’s Day, they’ve got big news — they’re bringing back the mochi waffles.
Mochi waffles have all the appeal of other waffles in that they’re a golden breakfast pastry, riddled with holes to capture drizzles. But mochi gives them that magical bite — crispy on the outside, chewy at heart. And in fact, they’re just as Sunday morning easy to make at home, with a couple of simple tweaks. The only ingredient that some people might not be familiar with is the rice flour itself. The Third Culture guys exclusively use mochiko from Koda Farms, which is a Japanese-style fine grind, made from heirloom rice grown in the Central Valley. It’s not expensive. One trip to Nijiya Market in Japantown or the Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley, and a box is yours for only a couple of bucks. The remaining ingredients are hopefully already in the pantry: butter, sugar, eggs, coconut milk, and vanilla.
The rice flour is a slightly different animal, in terms of how it behaves. Unlike all-purpose flour, mochiko is completely gluten free, so, delightfully, you can’t overstir it. Beat the bejesus out of every lump of coconut fat, and it still won’t fight back. Shyu has two pearls of wisdom: Increase the liquid. “Just like making rice in a rice cooker, rice flour wants to soak up lots more liquid and get good and plump.” And increase the cook time. Whereas regular cupcakes might take 20 minutes in the oven, Third Culture’s mochi muffins take a solid hour in order to completely hydrate, and the same principal applies to waffles. The bakery also rests its batter for a few hours before baking, believing it helps to bloom the flavor.
Finally, a waffle is always a golden opportunity to trick out with lots of fun flavors and toppings. Third Culture is into black sesame waffles, flavored with a paste they grind for 72 hours and loaded up with bananas, cacoa nibs, buckwheat honey, and a dollop of chantilly cream. Out on the wider internet, people appear to be very into pandan, with its signature green tint and floral aroma. Then again, purists might stick to classic butter mochi cake flavors, singing with coconut and vanilla. Crispy and chewy, fully loaded or simply munched out of hand, the mochi waffles are clear proof that these guys might be right: It’s nearly impossible to feel sad while eating them.
There are lots of mochi waffle recipes floating out on the internet, but Shyu recommends keeping it simple. Third Culture actually started with a butter mochi cake recipe, and this kind of basic recipe would be very easy to cut in half, providing plenty of batter to pour into an iron. But keep an eye on Instagram. In addition to cute doughnuts, the guys are promising some hot waffle tips, coming soon.