When the chef Sheldon Simeon checks out at the Foodland supermarket near his home on Maui, he can’t resist grabbing a tray of the golden butter mochi sitting by the register. The customers at Tin Roof, the lunch counter he owns with his wife, Janice Simeon, in Kahului, are just as tempted by the peanut-butter-frosted and rainbow-sprinkled chocolate version he sells.
Butter mochi is irresistible nostalgia, a local dessert beloved throughout Hawaii and beyond. The dessert, which Kathy YL Chan, the author of the blog Onolicious Hawai’i, describes as “the perfect combo of cake and mochi,” is a universal favorite, ever-present at birthday parties and bake sales, family gatherings and graduations.
“It’s not a big-deal dessert — it’s casual,” she said. “You always expect it to be at a potluck. That’s what makes it so awesome.”
Butter mochi recipes can be found in community cookbooks, including generations-old pamphlets, across the islands, but a distinct origin story for the dish is tough to pin down. Ms. Chan, who was born and raised in Honolulu, can’t remember a time when the golden cubes didn’t simply appear at every party. “I’m pretty sure it’s from Hawaii,” she said. “Butter mochi is just butter mochi.”
The dessert is as easy to make — stir and pour into a pan — as it is to enjoy. Its softness evokes the pleasure of sinking into a plush chair, and its sticky bounce delivers the delight of an ice cream cone. With mochiko, sweet rice flour, at its foundation, butter mochi develops a natural sweetness that hits that stomach-soul spot.
A standard recipe starts with a one-pound box of mochiko and a 9-by-13-inch cake pan, and ends with a slab sliced into squares or rectangles. Beyond that, variations are endless and encouraged. The proportions of butter, sugar, eggs and milk determine whether the texture verges on that of custard or poundcake. The copious milk options — think fresh dairy, evaporated, coconut milk or a combination — mean that butter mochi can taste nutty or a little like caramel.
Pua Kamake’e’aina Kaneshiro, a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant who lives in Pearl City on Oahu, prefers to make her butter mochi “not too hard, not too soft.” After years of experimenting, she found her ideal formula in the plastic-comb-bound “Mochi Lovers’ Cookbook” by Teresa DeVirgilio-Lam. It relies on a coconut and evaporated milk blend that includes water, a profoundly understated secret ingredient.
In a departure from the commonly used canned milks, Tiffany Montiel, a relative of Mr. Simeon, uses only whole milk. She landed on that choice — along with buttering the pan for extra-crisp edges — while tweaking her grandmother’s bibingka recipe.
“I always thought that butter mochi was the English term for bibingka,” Ms. Montiel said, considering their similar ingredients and texture. Mr. Simeon also calls it bibingka, noting that Filipinos in Hawaii use it as “a loose term.”
“I think butter mochi is the classic story of Hawaii’s diversity, with lines blurred between different cultures,” he said. “We don’t question it. Each family has adapted its own recipe, and it doesn’t have to represent a distinctive culture. It’s just fun and delicious.”
Ms. Kaneshiro, who is Hawaiian, first tasted butter mochi when she met her husband’s Japanese family. Growing up in Laie, in the countryside of Oahu, she ate kulolo taro, a Hawaiian taro dessert, but began baking as an adult and became known for her butter mochi. To perfect it, she said: “You just have to gauge and see how you prefer it and go according to your own flavor or taste preferences. The most important part for me is that you have to add a little aloha.”