Food & Drink

Mochi Donuts Are the Japanese and American Pastry Hybrid Sweeping the Nation

The springy donuts are naturally gluten-free and made with tapioca or glutinous rice flour.

mochi donuts donut
Photo: The Sweet Boutique Bakery; Illustration: Grace Han/Thrillist

Americans love their donuts. From the Krispy Kreme rings that glide under waterfalls of glaze, to the croissant-donut hybrid from Dominique Ansel that set the pastry world on fire, to local mom and pop shops with pink frosted sprinkles, there is a type of donut for everyone. Over the years, the range of donuts has expanded; vegan options are typical on donut menus now, and bakeries are always experimenting with new flavors and ingredients.

Enter the mochi donut: a donut trend that is sweeping across America due to its uniquely bouncy texture and naturally gluten-free qualities. The mochi donut has existed before its stateside debut, but was mostly popularized in Japan under the name “pon de ring” from the donut chain, Mister Donut

At the legendary Liliha Bakery located in Honolulu, Hawaii, poi mochi donuts -- made from taro root -- are served alongside the bakery’s iconic coco puffs and malasadas. “Like anything else that is good, people catch on,” Angela Choi, the marketing director for The Yummy Group, explained. “Mochi has been around for a long time coming from  Japan so I think of it like how Starbucks started selling matcha drinks… only recently the mainland considered it to be mainstream enough to create a fusion product out of it to sell in America.”

Hawaii tends to catch on to Japanese food trends before the rest of the country, thanks to its larger population of Japanese-Americans and closer proximity to Japan. Liliha isn’t the only bakery capitalizing on the heightened popularity of mochi donuts. MoDo Hawaii opened in February of 2017 and has been slinging the chewy donuts since -- with pop-ups throughout California that have drawn crowds lined up just to get a chance to taste the springy donuts.

“The popularity is due to several factors,” Daniel Furumura, the co-owner of MoDo, explained before listing them off: “1. The product looks great, 2. It tastes even better, 3. Everyone loves donuts, and 4. People are beginning to be familiar with and enjoy ‘qq’ or ‘mochi-mochi’ bouncy textured foods, like boba.” 

At both Modo and Liliha, the donuts follow the “pon de ring” type of recipe. The fried batches that come out are reminiscent of flowers or teething rings in shape, and the individual spheres that make up the donut are easy to tug apart and enjoy like a donut hole. These types of donuts are usually made with tapioca flour and are notoriously difficult to work with by hand due to the yeasted dough’s extremely sticky nature, which is why places like Mister Donut and Liliha opt for specialized machinery that can squeeze the dough out into its traditional shape straight into hot oil.

However, not all mochi donuts replicate Mister Donut’s famous “pon de ring.” In Portland, Oregon, Mikiko Mochi Donuts more closely resemble Hawaiian-style butter mochi, which is baked rather than fried, uses glutinous rice flour as opposed to tapioca flour, and is more comparable to a gooey, denser butter cake.

frying fried mochi donuts pon de ring
Pon de rings frying at MoDo Hawaii. | Jason Leung

“We had been playing around with the recipe last fall without any greater intentions, but once we got the recipe dialed in and tasted them in their current form, we knew we had something special,” chef and Mikiko’s cofounder, Alex McGillivray, said. He, alongside his partner Emily Mikiko Strocher, decided to go all-in on their small donut business. 

With flavors like rose milk tea, yuzu vanilla funfetti, and chocolate, Mikiko Mochi Donuts has something for everyone. “We draw inspiration for our flavors from our own life experiences and the diversity of our fair city. Emily’s Japanese-American heritage definitely plays into flavors like black sesame, red bean, and all things yuzu,” McGillivray explained. “A lot of the Southeast Asian flavors like pandan or calamansi are reflections of my experiences growing up in Portland eating at and later working in Asian restaurants. Butter mochi is from Hawaii, so flavors like POG and ingredients like li hing mui are a natural fit.”

Over at Third Culture Bakery, a bake house with locations in both Aurora, Colorado and Berkeley, California, the mochi donuts are also shaped in classic donut rings and baked, rather than fried, with inspiration drawn from familial recipes. Before even making donuts, cofounder and chef Sam Butarbutar began experimenting with their now-trademarked mochi muffin in 2016, inspired by his mom’s Indonesian baked tapioca and cassava cake. Mochi donuts were a natural progression.

“We wanted to make mochi donuts but felt very strongly about it being baked versus fried for a healthier everyday option that lets us showcase the incredible ingredients and heritage rice flour we use,” Wenter Shyu, Butarbutar’s partner and co-founder of Third Culture Bakery, said. “Mochi isn't something new -- we've both grown up with it all our lives. But now doing it in a familiar but new way is exciting!” The mochi donut, a mix of both Eastern and Western cultures, aligns with Third Culture’s mission of celebrating both Shyu and Butarbutar’s third culture kid identities. “We hope that the bakery becomes a symbol of diversity, inclusiveness, and acceptance,” reads Third Culture Bakery’s website.

mochi donut black sesame
A mochi donut from MoDo Hawaii is dipped in a black sesame glaze. | Jason Leung

In Sugarland, Texas, mochi donuts helped revitalize a bakery when business was slowed as a result of the pandemic. Christine Nguyen -- baker and owner of The Sweet Boutique Bakery -- had been aware of mochi donuts’ popularity along the west coast for many years. “We just never got around to making them happen,” explained Martin Nguyen, Christine’s husband and manager of The Sweet Boutique Bakery. “But when she introduced them this past spring, we were the first to offer them in the Houston area.”

It started when Christine appeared on Food Network’s “Spring Baking Championship” and introduced the judges to her version of a mochi donut. The feedback she received was so encouraging that she decided to bring her creation to her bakery. Unfortunately, the introduction of her new donut in March also coincided with the rapid emergence of Covid-19.

“We decided to make a small batch of mochi donuts but didn't know if anybody would come due to the pandemic,” Martin explained. Then, the donuts sold out within 15 minutes. “We made another batch and [again] we sold out in 1 hour and 15 minutes. At that point, the rest of our business was slowing down significantly so we decided to go all in on the mochi donuts.” 

For a month straight, the mochi donuts at The Sweet Boutique Bakery sold out every day as the staff worked to appease the demand. At its peak, the bakery was serving roughly 3000 donuts a day with customers traveling from all over Texas just to get a taste of the elastic donuts. 
 
Although some patrons had never tasted mochi and didn’t know what to expect, the fact that it's presented in donut form makes the sweet treat feel more accessible. “I think donuts are just a standard item that people love and eat all the time,” Martin said. “Mochi donuts offer a new and exciting take on the standard donut and the fact that they are gluten-free makes it so much more appealing.”
 
If you’ve yet to try mochi donuts, whether as the airy and fried pon de ring or the denser baked butter mochi, options are springing up all across the country. Whether you’re in Hawaii, New York City, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles, the mochi donut is only gaining more traction, rivaling the popularity of old-fashioneds and classic glazed yeast donuts everywhere.

West Coast and Hawaii:

Fill Bakeshop
Costa Mesa, CA

Mochinut
Los Angeles, CA

Third Culture Bakery
Aurora, CO and Berkeley, CA

Liliha Bakery
Honolulu, HI

Modo Hawaii
Honolulu, HI with pop-ups throughout California

Paina Cafe
Las Vegas, NV

Mikiko Mochi Donuts
Portland, OR

East Coast:

Win Son Bakery
Brooklyn, NY 

The Dough Club
New York, NY

Alimama
New York, NY

The South:

The Sweet Boutique Bakery
Sugar Land, TX

TeA'more
Pasadena, TX

Tea Cup Cafe
Houston, TX

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn