My Family Recipe

The Delicious Story of My Mother's Mochiko Chicken & Life in Hawaii

A family recipe.

May  7, 2019
Photo by Alana Kysar

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones. This week, in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, food writer and Maui native Alana Kysar looks back on the Hawaiian recipe that’s dearest to her heart.


I grew up on the island of Maui, part of one of the most isolated island chains on Earth. When I close my eyes and think back to my childhood, it’s easy to get lost in the days where I’d run so hard up and down Kamaole Beach Park in my ruffled two-piece fighting beach-berry wars with white beach naupaka (half-flower) berries that it felt like my legs were going to fall off. I see the bluer-than-blue ocean, the foamy white shore break, and I can still recall the way the salt, sun, and powdered-sugar sand would coat my skin with a layer of pink, sunburn covered in a thin layer of dried down salty sand, after a long day at the beach. I can still taste the foods that filled these days, the mochiko chicken and triangle musubi, the potato mac salad and Azeka’s kalbi short ribs, and the countless Spam musubi and cans of Hawaiian Sun.

And yet these snapshots just set the stage for the feature picture: my mom, who is at the center of all my memories.

Mom and me. Photo by Alana Kysar

My mother was born and raised on Hawai‘i Island, aka the Big Island, and is sansei (or third-generation Japanese-American). This is a significant detail because it says a lot about who she is. She carries herself with such silent grace and humility, and executes most everything flawlessly, with zero fanfare and few words, which is something that is very much a part of the Japanese culture. She led by example, allowing me to follow her lead versus holding my hand along the way. But she did it with aloha (love, affection, kindness, and compassion), a big part of the culture in Hawai‘i.

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Top Comment:
“I’ll be on the lookout for the sweet rice flower, and your book, hoping to bring a bit of Hawai’i in our daily life here in Belgium ☺️. Thank you!”
— Aurélie
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When I was growing up, she worked a nine-to-five job as an accountant by day at a Japanese development company. She’d drive an hour each way from our home in Kula to work in Wailea, which doesn’t seem that far when viewed on a map. But because the road that leads straight down south is private land and not accessible to the public, the only route there is a meandering drive through town and then back around to the southside. And she did this five days a week, all while packing me the best lunches and allowing me to take my sweet time in the mornings to pick out outfits for school, which usually included something tie-dyed and neon. Looking back now, this must have driven my poor mother crazy because it was the exact opposite of her polished and impeccably pulled-together dress.

Me, as a mochi. Photo by Alana Kysar

Even more, she’d come home exhausted after these long commutes, yet always found the time to cook up delicious dinners and then stay up late to make me treats for the next day. And not just treats, but tiny masterpieces, like individually wrapped teddy bear–shaped marshmallow crispy treats, each complete with candy eyes, a nose, a mouth, and one of those hard icing bowties.

On weekends, she’d take me to my soccer games, packing juicy, ice-cold orange slices for the team, Capri Sun packs, and some kind of perfectly packed tasty snack like furikake Chex Mix, (which always made my teammates cheer). She’d help me hunt down the best plumeria trees—we needed the sturdy, super yellow plumerias—for the lei I would wear for my Sunday hula performances at Lahaina Cannery Mall.

Through leading by example, she taught me how to make her famous (she’d hate hearing me call it famous, but it is!) mochiko chicken. It's a dish that, to this day, is my absolute favorite thing to eat on this planet. It's so intrinsically tied to my childhood that I can’t help but feel like I’m 8 years old whenever I smell it.

When I asked her how she learned to make it, she said, “I don’t know. Probably from a local cookbook.”

“You mean your mom didn’t make it or teach you how to make it?” I asked.

“Sure, she probably made it,” my mom explained, “but I’m pretty sure I found the recipe in a book in high school and used that to make it for my family.” (You see, by the time my mom was in high school, she was cooking dinner for her parents and her younger brother.)

“But Grandma made this dish too, right, and she never taught you?” I nearly demanded the answer to my question.

“She probably made it, but no,” she said. And that was that.

She carries herself with such silent grace and humility, and executes most everything flawlessly, with zero fanfare and few words, which is something that is very much a part of the Japanese culture.

When I pressed her for more details, like if the recipe remained the same over the years, my mother answered in the way that she always does: “Maybe.” Which is to say, she casually took zero credit for making the good dish even better, if not perfect. I learned only after more inquiry that, ultimately, she did make some changes, which means that she in turn made it our family’s own mochiko chicken. She increased the garlic and salt and balanced the recipe perfectly—the way she has always managed to balance all things in life.

This recipe, my mother’s version of it, appears in my cookbook Aloha Kitchen, and that’s not because I did not try to alter it or make it better. It went through five different rounds of testing, where I tried to alter the ratios, add more of this or that, and ultimately failed to improve upon it. In fact, the only change I made was to wrap the chicken in nori, adding a bit of my tie-dyed neon flair, if you will. It’s this magical mix of sweet and salty, lightly batter fried chicken that has Japanese origins but is very much a product of my home. Of Hawai‘i. Of my mom.

Have you ever had mochiko chicken? Tell, tell in the comments.

8 Comments

Aurélie May 9, 2019
Thank you for this recipe and for the beautiful background story. I’ve been to Hawai’i twice and look forward to the day I’ll be able to go again. I’ll be on the lookout for the sweet rice flower, and your book, hoping to bring a bit of Hawai’i in our daily life here in Belgium ☺️. Thank you!
 
Kim C. May 8, 2019
Lovely story and enticing recipe- thank you!
 
Alana K. May 8, 2019
Thank YOU, Kim!
 
Jennifer May 8, 2019
Alana You truly are amazing! thank you for sharing! I wanted to share with everyone these life changing food storage bag that has changed my meal prepping ! https://www.amazon.com/Reusable-Silicone-Storage-Airtight-Veggie/dp/B07PQ4R3ZK
 
Alana K. May 8, 2019
Thank you for your kind words, Jennifer!
 
Yvonne H. May 7, 2019
https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=mochiko+sweet+rice+flour&crid=1J6YWLAGLOPU5&sprefix=Mochi%2Caps%2C141&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_5_5
 
Lian N. May 7, 2019
Thank you Alana, I totally love the backstory to this dish, it’s so heartfelt and genuine. I can’t wait to try this dish but I am stuck with one ingredient - sweet rice flour, if I can’t find this at my place, what can I use to substitute this ingredient?
 
Alana K. May 8, 2019
Hi Lian, thank you! Yvonne was kind enough to link the Mochiko (sweet rice flour) above your comment--you can absolutely find it on Amazon or your local Asian market. Unfortunately, there isn't a substitution for the sweet rice flour, but I promise it's worth sourcing! :)