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Doughnut trends tend to come and go. (Remember the Cronut craze? Boy, those were the days.) Right now the mochi doughnut is rising to the occasion, but its moment may not be fleeting. One bite of the sweet, chewy confection and you’ll be inclined to put a ring on it.
While it is ubiquitous in Japan, its country of origin, and is used in a multitude of applications, the first (and perhaps only) thing people associate with mochi stateside are bite-sized servings of ice cream wrapped in a chewy casing.
First, let’s clear up a common misconception: Mochi is technically the rice cake exterior of the frozen treat, not the full bon bon. (It’s a mistake often made with another Japanese specialty, sushi, which actually refers to vinegared rice and not the raw fish that commonly tops it.)
Beyond ice cream, the cake (made from mochigome, a short-grain glutinous rice) is used in a variety of sweets as well as savory dishes such as broiled kinako mochi, a popular (and addictive) snack food.
The history of the mochi doughnut is a bit of a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Its evolution is literally all over the map but a point of origin can be traced to Honolulu where in 1992 Charmaine Ocasek began making poi mochi, in her parents’ garage. The deep fried Hawaiian and Japanese fusion of mashed taro and rice cake, similar to a doughnut hole with a pudding-like interior, became a local sensation. (The addictive orbs can now be found at Uncle Lani’s, which, to make matters even more confusing, is named after Ocasek’s father.)
Fast forward to 2016 when popular Honolulu bakery Liliha unveiled the poi mochi doughnut. (Now’s a good time to mention that 38 years earlier, Kamehameha Bakery, also located in Honolulu, introduced the mochi-less poi glazed doughnut.) Though the poi-mochi pairing can be traced back to Ocasek’s hybrid creation, Liliha’s version has a breadier consistency thanks to a combination of mochiko, the glutinous rice flour used to make sweet mochi, and wheat flour, which is the base for traditional doughnuts. Its appearance takes inspiration from popular Japanese chain Mister Donut and its iconic Pon de Ring, a circle of eight tiny pull-apart balls.
While the Pon de Ring, which debuted in 2003, is sometimes credited as the first mochi doughnut, it’s actually made with tapioca flour, of boba and pudding fame. But get this: Its shape and use of tapioca is tied to Brazil, home of the springy cheese bread Pão de Queijo.
Oh, and one more thing: Mister Donut actually originated in America all the way back in 1956!
Which brings us to MoDo Hawaii. Founded three years ago (in Honolulu, of course) by Kenny Chen, Daniel Furumura, and David Mao, the bakery quickly developed a rabid cult following and its signature sole offering is considered by many to be the gold standard of mochi doughnuts. Like Liliha, MoDo mixes glutinous rice and wheat flour, but its proprietary ratio yields an airier, lighter product, more yeast than cake.
The fried-to-order pon de ring-shaped doughnuts are either finished with a sprinkle of sugar or an eye-popping glaze. Flavors, which rotate daily, span the globe from Hawaiian-influenced passion fruit and taro to Japanese-inspired matcha and black sesame, along with more familiar offerings such as cookies & cream, blueberry, and dark chocolate.
Along with its Waikiki shop, MoDo currently operates a pair of pop-ups in Northern and Southern California.
If mochi doughnuts aren’t available in your town, don’t despair. Fry up a batch in your own kitchen and taste what all the fuss is about.