Yesterday we made mochi, a traditional Japanese New Year’s rice cake. Nadia and I love the dessert of a strawberry wrapped in sweet bean paste and mochi. It was interesting to see the entire process of rice to the finished cake.
The Latter Day Saints congregation of Toyonaka annually holds a mochi-making day and since we have friends in the church, we went along. Making mochi as a family is a traditional activity at New Years and it is consumed in great quantities in Japan. I guess an equivalent in the west would be the Christmas fruitcake. Different types of mochi desserts are also featured during sakura (cherry blossom) season and Children’s Day (May 5) and Girl’s Day (March 3).
As with most things in Japan, the process is labor-intensive! A short-grained, sweet and sticky rice variety soaked overnight. It is then steamed and pounded with large wooden mallets (kine) in a huge mortar (usu). As you can see in the video above, it is a two-person operation, with one person wetting and shaping the mochi between strikes of the mallet. Timing is key here! There were no accidents, although I learned that you need to hit the roll of mochi and not the mortar as splinters from the wooden mallet may get into the finished mochi. If you don’t want the exercise and risk of a smashed finger, there is a modern appliance to do the same, and it produces a more homogenous smooth mochi. I prefer the old-fashioned method!
Since it has a bland taste, anything can be added to mochi, either sweet (chocolate, bean paste, fruit) or savory (shrimp). The Japanese have been making mochi for over 2,000 years! For a long time it was a holy food and reserved only for nobility, but over time, it became a common food.
It is quite healthy food, being basically water and rice and is free of gluten and cholesterol. It does pack some calories, however, as a typical serving is the same as a bowl of rice. Samurai used to take it on expeditions because it was easy to carry and prepare and was packed with calories. It is something like an ancient Clif Bar or energy bar that modern hikers carry on the trail.
Thanks to the Toyonaka group for allowing us to share this cultural experience!