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Mochi: Power food packed with significance

January 11, 2018

It is hard to overstate the importance of rice in Japan’s traditional culture. Ancient mythology credits the origin of the staple grain to the deities of the Shinto pantheon. But rice is not just the gift of the gods. It has also long been considered one of their foods of choice, and is commonly offered at shrines and on family altars on auspicious occasions, or for rituals and community festivals.

The deities appear happy to accept rice in any form, whether cooked or raw, processed or fermented. But the two manifestations of the grain they seem most partial to are sake (for obvious reasons) and cakes of pounded glutinous rice known as mochi.

Cakes of power

Mortals in Japan have long shared the same preferences. When it comes to special occasions, it is mochi—along with sake—that often fuels the celebration. These firm cakes of concentrated rice are especially popular in the winter months, thanks to their enduring reputation as strength-giving cold-weather sustenance.

When bought from a store, mochi looks hard and unappetizing in its uncooked state. But as soon as it is heated up, it undergoes a transformation. Dunked into boiling water, it starts to melt and ooze. When baked, grilled or pan-fried, it puffs up as air pockets form inside, developing a crisp crust with a soft, gooey interior, reminiscent of toasted marshmallows.

But because mochi is just made of rice, it is rarely eaten as is. Once it is soft enough, you flavor it with your seasoning of choice. One of the classic ways of eating mochi is simply brushed with shoyu (soy sauce) and wrapped inside a sheet of nori seaweed, a preparation known as isobe-maki.

You can pile up your mochi with natto, or dredge it in grated daikon, perhaps with some yakumi seasonings on the side. It can also be a dessert, served with sweet red azuki beans. Another popular version often found at traditional confectioners is served dusted with kinako (roasted soybean powder) that has been mixed with sugar, or with kuromitsu (black sugar syrup) on the side.

Mochigome: rice with auspicious stickiness

Glutinous rice (known in Japanese as mochigome) is quite distinct from that eaten as ordinary table rice (uruchimai). Although both are short-grain, mochigome tends to be plumper and slightly opaque in its raw, polished state, with a firmer, chewier texture when cooked.

Mochigome has long been associated with celebrations, and is commonly steamed together with azuki beans to give the grain a reddish tint. This sekihan (literally “red rice”) was traditionally served on special occasions throughout the year, such as when marking young children’s Shichi-go-san observances each autumn. While it can still be found at old-school wagashi (confectionery) shops, these days it is also appearing in more modern guise as sekihan onigiri (rice balls) sold at convenience stores.

But, as its name indicates, mochigome is most usually eaten in the form of mochi cakes. To prepare this power food, the rice must first be steamed and then pounded until the grains are crushed to a smooth, sticky consistency. These days, this process is done in specialist workshops and automated factories. But in the past it was a job that had to be done by hand.

Mochitsuki: a pounding party

Pounding mochi is hard work, and so the more people there are taking part, the easier it gets. For that reason, it has always been a community activity, whether in the countryside or the inner city. But this is not just due to economies of scale. A mochi-pounding session (mochitsuki) is always an excellent excuse for a party.

Massive equipment is used: mortars hollowed out of tree trunks, wooden mallets longer than a grown man’s arm, and multi-tiered steamers for cooking the rice. Usually two people do the pounding, alternating strokes with their pestles, and chanting to keep the rhythm consistent. A third participant crouches close by, reaching into the mortar between blows to turn the steaming-hot rice—a skill that requires both heat-resistant fingers and impeccable timing.

At some gatherings, professionals are brought in to put on a show. Other times junior sumo wrestlers are employed to do the heavy work, showing off their bulk and strength while the party-goers stand around watching and shouting encouragement.

New Year mirror mochi

As a food with such deep importance, mochi naturally plays a major role in Japanese New Year celebrations. As the holidays draw near, large round cakes of mochi are placed on ritual altars not only in Shinto shrines but also in homes, offices, schools and public buildings. Stacked up with a smaller cake on top of a larger one, they are known as kagami (“mirror”) mochi, because their circular shapes resemble the bronze mirrors used in ancient times.

Auspicious items are often placed on or next to the kagami mochi: fronds of bracken; strips of konbu seaweed; sometimes even a whole lobster, although these days it is more likely to be plastic than real; and on the very top, an orange—traditionally a daidai (bitter orange), although on smaller arrangements of kagami mochi more diminutive citrus fruit may be used. Each of these elements has its own symbolic meaning, as a prayer for longevity, happiness and good fortune in the year ahead.

Ozoni: auspicious soup

Mochi also holds center stage on New Year dining tables. Whereas fewer people now bother to make the elaborate dishes that comprise the formal osechi ryori meal, most households still prepare the ceremonial soup known as zoni (or ozoni).

The exact recipe varies from area to area, and even from one household to the next, depending on individual preferences and local tradition. But there is a single essential ingredient that is always added: small pieces of mochi. For more detail, see this article.

Throughout Japan, the fundamental significance remains the same. Eating mochi on the first day of the year not only provides warmth and nourishment. It is also thought to impart strength, endurance and good health, to get you through the winter chill and safely through the year ahead.

Text: Robbie Swinnerton