In 2019, Emily Mikiko Strocher, an eighth grade social studies teacher, brought her partner, chef Alex McGillivray, down to a wedding in her native California. While she was there, she decided to show him the orchard where her family holds their annual mochitsuki, a celebration surrounding the making of mochi. It’s a labor-intensive process that involves soaking, steaming, kneading, and pounding glutinous rice until it becomes the soft, stretchy base for so many desserts enjoyed around the world. “We’ve been doing it for 60 years or so,” Mikiko Strocher says. “It’s always been a part of my family’s food tradition.”
That’s where the couple got the idea for starting a mochi doughnut pop-up. Mochi doughnuts, unlike raised or cake doughnuts, rely on glutinous rice flour, which gives them a light, chewy texture. At the time, the two couldn’t find any mochi doughnuts in Portland, and it seemed like an idea worth trying out. So in February 2020, the couple decided to host a pop-up in a WeWork space; they sold 72 donuts in 30 minutes.
In the last year, mochi doughnuts have started to gain ground in Portland at large, from pandemic-friendly pop-ups to Instagram-based businesses. Some cafes simply bake their doughnuts; some bake and fry. Some use a blend of rice and wheat flour; others go completely gluten-free and stick to rice flour. Some use dairy; others skip it. All of them, however, rely on that rice flour, which creates a distinct textural difference from the doughnuts that made Portland famous. The popularity of mochi doughnuts makes sense: Portland, of course, is known for its doughnuts, from its love-hate relationship with Voodoo and Blue Star to the humanitarian doughnut operations at Pip’s Original. But the city, oddly, hasn’t had a longstanding history of mochi doughnut shops, even as they appeared in pastry cases in other large cities around the United States. They’ve appeared on the menu at local chain Coco Donuts, but beyond that, there isn’t much.
That changed in 2020, however: Soon after Mikiko started selling its ube and rose-glazed treats, Lisa Nguyen started her own mochi doughnut pop-up, Heyday. Nguyen is Vietnamese, and when she had her first mochi doughnut in Japan 10 years ago, it reminded her of desserts she ate as a kid. “I’ve always grown up with that texture, that rice flour texture in baked goods,” she says. “A lot of Vietnamese desserts that are baked, steamed, fried, the big component is rice flour and tapioca flour. It was interesting to break it apart and see how rice flour is used in other cultures — but it’s not called mochi.”
Unlike McGillivray, Nguyen makes her doughnuts with a combination of wheat and rice flour, which she fries and, in certain cases, bakes. Then, each doughnut gets some sort of glaze or topping, from coconut glaze and corn crumble to condensed milk and cacao nibs. “When I think about my flavors, I think about people that are really dear to my heart, I think about places I’ve traveled and lived,” she says. “My all-time favorite flavor is the coconut sweet corn, which is a spinoff on a dessert I grew up eating a lot, chè bắp — it’s a corn and tapioca dessert that’s topped off with coconut milk.”
Lilly Le, the 20-year-old nursing student behind the Instagram-based doughnut shop Chewyy PDX, fell in love with mochi doughnuts in a similar way. Le grew up in Vietnam, where she would often hit up street vendors for treats like bánh cam, a sesame ball, or bánh khoai mỡ, a fried taro cake. When she had her first mochi doughnut in San Francisco, it reminded her of those childhood treats but with the added freedom of the glaze and toppings. “I love doughnuts, and these were doughnuts but chewier,” she says. “The glaze on top, the way you put your creativity into the flavors — I just love it.”
At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, Le was craving those treats — both mochi doughnuts and the bánh she ate as a kid. She played around with recipes while in quarantine, and landed on her mochi doughnut recipe, which gets its springiness from tapioca and rice flour. Then, she started making doughnuts for friends and family, and they encouraged her to start an Instagram business. She began selling boxes of her doughnuts for weekend pickup, rotating the flavors every month. Le often bases her flavors on favorite desserts — everything from Oreo cheesecake to mango sticky rice. “In July, I did all these Asian snacks and candies that I grew up with and made them into doughnuts,” Le says. “Most of my customers are Asian and had those snacks when they were a kid, and they loved them.”
Much of Portland’s new fascination with mochi doughnuts has to do with that same combination of nostalgia and novelty. The local market’s limited number of Japanese and Vietnamese bakeries was part of the reason people like Nguyen and Le got into mochi doughnuts — it was a way to play with that quintessential chewiness not represented in many Portland-area pastry cases. Vince Nguyen, the chef behind the fine dining spot Berlu, ended up doing something similar, opening a small Vietnamese pop-up bakery in his restaurant space in early August, serving pandan honeycomb cakes and other rice flour-centric desserts. Berlu is a completely gluten-free restaurant, so rice flour-based desserts made sense. “Often, when you go to a Vietnamese bakery [in Portland], there’s lots of French influence,” Nguyen says. “But this is gluten-free and dairy free. It’s very different from what a lot of people do.”
Simultaneously, the strain of the year has drawn Portlanders to comfort foods. Many Portland restaurants transitioned to casual, accessible business models, from the self-identified “Asian stoner food” pop-up Oma’s Takeaway at the hip Indonesian restaurant Gado Gado to chip shop pop-up Oui Chippy at the classy cocktail bar Scotch Lodge. People around the world started baking nonstop, tackling breads and cakes in an attempt to bury themselves in a healing pile of carbs. So doughnut pop-ups — familiar, nostalgic, and fun — seemed like a small comfort in the burlap-sack-full-of-nails that is 2020.
The success of the Instagram pop-up model is not a small factor, either: The ability to launch a business online, center it around one dessert with rotating flavors, and offer a quick, grab-and-go treat allowed people like Le and Nguyen to scale on their own time. Neither of them are interested in shops right now — but being able to connect with others and be creative during an exhausting period has felt restorative and fun. Nguyen says many of her customers are unfamiliar or new to some of the ingredients or flavors she uses, which ends up being a conversation starter at pop-ups. “I can use these products to introduce flavors, to create a conversation,” Nguyen says. “It’s not about the doughnuts — it’s about how I can bridge cultures over flavors and textures.”
Update Sept. 4, 2020, 9:25 a.m.
This story was updated to include information about Coco Donuts’ mochi doughnuts.