Come the Japanese New Year, when some particularly enthusiastic families and co-workers across the archipelago once again dust off their bamboo rice steamers, big wooden hammers, not forgetting the Sake, and head off to the local community center, school, or as in my case, the abandoned yacht club, it raises the hairs on the neck to bear witness to how easily people who arrived in Mercedes Benzes sporting Gucci like it’s Gap can hear the call and hark back to the Yamato Damashi (Japanese Spirit) of their kimono-clad ancestors. What is the pull to mashing fresh-boiled rice, using the traditional Mochitsuki tools with rarely-heard names: kine, usu?
But first, what exactly is Mochi?
Mochi is often translated as Japanese Rice Cake, which immediately brings to mind the hockey puck-sized cakes of puffed rice my mom ate whenever she was “dieting.” If the fingernails-on-blackboard sound of teeth cracking through styrofoam or the feel of chewing on stale cardboard wasn’t enough to put her off of them, then the fact that at short range they flew with greater accuracy and velocity (at my cat) than my frisbee probably insured my mother stopped stocking them and tried to diet another way.
Mochitsuki – Making Mochi
Seriously though, Mochi is not diet food. Made from glutinous–meaning glue-like and not referencing gluten–rice of the Japonica variety with a high concentration of starch (due to having low amylose content and high amounts of amylopectin, which is responsible for the sticky quality) that is pounded into a smooth paste while hot and then formed into balls, it’s actually pretty high in calories and like plain rice, pretty tasteless. Mixed with azuki (sweet bean paste), natto (fermented soy beans), formed into tiny balls in zoni, covered in kinako flour and the sake starts flowing, it’s generally a slow descent into chaos. But let me back up a bit.
Served in a variety of manners for millennia throughout east and southeast Asian countries, the Japanese style of making mochi is similar to its oriental neighbors, yet also very stylistically unique.
As modern society has tended toward the equality of the sexes (even in Asia), tradition dictates that mama-san is in the kitchen cooking the rice, stewing the azuki beans, mixing the natto, prepping the zoni (mochi soup), all the while happily gossiping away with the other aunties while the men are the ones who stand around outside alternating between smoking and pounding the kine (wooden hammer) into the warm mochigome rice, slowly morphing into the white blob for which everyone has been waiting. It’s not necessarily that way–lots of people do nothing whatsoever except eat or drink.
As a rule most Japanese assume (probably correctly) that westerners prefer bread to rice, and likely have no idea what mochi is, and thus cannot truly appreciate the end result of the day’s worth of laborious work in order to get…what again–rice cakes? With the winter wind and snow on their way, standing around outside at six am, one is only warmed by colluding with the shivering children around the meager bonfire or getting down to the meat and potatoes of it and properly pounding their weight in the white stuff. While the kine is rather easy to get a grip on, when the initial two to three-man team begins circling the usu (semi-hollow tree trunk mortar in which mochi is pounded) and the rice-mash fest begins, fingers beware! After getting it the right consistency, two of the men back off and one hammer takes the lead in concert with a cohort whose job it is to wet the glutinous glob, turning it over in between mallet whacks, and keeping the rhythm with the kind of beat/chant/song typical to Japanese grunt work: Yoshi (emphatically pronounced “Yosh” or “Yosha”).
If you can brave the cold and bruises until lunchtime, the rest of the day will be rice cake, so to speak. Mashing with all of one’s might, you suddenly hear the call to come inside the abandoned Yacht club lodge where roars a huge fire and before you lies a feast of unimaginable sights and smells buffeted by the slurps of soup and clack of wooden chopsticks. Intermingling with laughs of the standing crowd whose aim of disappearing food quickly into their open, hungry mouths is quickly realized: anko, natto, zoni, shoyu, nori, mitsuba, yuzu, kinako. All centered around making the simple staple that has sustained them for centuries a bit meatier, more colorful and overall tastier than anything our collective moms might have eaten in the 80s.