Summer of warabi

Beat the heat with this seasonal treat!

With the summer weather just around the corner, many Japanese will be turning to favourite summertime treats to beat the heat. This doesn’t necessarily mean cold treats, but lightly flavoured edibles that leave behind a cool, airy feeling. Among the more popular of these warm-weather treats is warabi mochi, made from warabi starch.

Warabi, commonly known as bracken fern in English, can be found growing on the hillsides of Japan. It is used for a number of different things depending on the part of the plant that is being used. Warabi mochi, a variation of the popular treat mochi, is made from starch derived from the warabi root. The stem or shoot of warabi is similar to the North American variety of fiddlehead, or ostrich fern, familiar to most of us from its annual appearance in supermarkets in spring. Warabi shoots, once roasted or sautéed, can be used as a side dish or in salads, with a flavour that has similarities to okra or asparagus. When preparing warabi, it is absolutely necessary to give them an overnight soak and then blanch them first. Not only does this improve the flavour by removing some of the bitter taste, it also removes toxins that some believe are contained in the plant.

Warabi mochi involves cooking warabi starch with water and sugar, then coating the result in kinako, or toasted soybean flour, giving these gummy treats a familiar toasted-beige powdery exterior. Like other types of mochi, warabi starch doesn’t have much flavour on its own, so any number of flavours can be added to it. Often no flavour is added at all, leaving just the light flavour of kinako or sometimes kuromitsu, a sweet syrup made with brown sugar. It is actually quite similar to other Japanese treats in its subtle sweetness, unlike the gummies and jujubes that line the sweets aisle at Western supermarkets.

This type of mochi differs slightly in texture from the typical Japanese mochi. While rice-based glutinous mochi has a texture that can be described as chewy but firm, and even dense, warabi mochi might seem a bit weirder for the uninitiated. The end result is akin to a very soft gummy bear, or perhaps firm Jell-o. While true warabi mochi is made from warabi starch, this ingredient has become very expensive due to the extensive procedure of harvesting and processing the warabi root to create the starch. These days it is more common to find warabi mochi made with substitutes like potato starch with just a small amount of warabi starch, while maintaining the same texture of true warabi mochi.

While the warm weather will make warabi mochi more common in the weeks to come, warabi shoots are easy to prepare if you’re craving something more savoury. For a delicious bowl of warabi gohan, try adding blanched warabi shoots to a rice cooker withdashi, soy sauce and mirin as well as your favourite cooked, flaked white fish for an easy and delicious meal.