Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Saturday, January 9, 2016



Glutinous rice cake. 餅。

Made by pounding hot steamed glutinous rice (mochigome) into an elastic paste and then knead portions of this into the form necessary.

Traditionally, the pounding was done with wooden mallets in barrel-sized wooden mortars (mochitsuki). This ceremony can still be seen at temple and shrine festivals, and also at some marriage ceremonies where bride and groom have to take a go at the pounding with an obvious double meaning.

Today, most mochi are machine-processed and sold ready-made. Sometimes they are sold fresh, but, more often than not, vacuum packed in supermarkets. Shapes can be round, square or sheet-like.

Mochi can be eaten "as such" by grilling them on a wire grill (mochi-ami) and then flavor them with a soy sauce dip. These are called yaki-mochi. Mochi double in size when grilled and develop a crispy skin.

Like the rice used to make them, mochi are culturally significant as being a concentrated version of Japan's staple food, rice - like bread in Christianity, a certain religious (Shintoist) halo is attached to it. We already find mention of mochi as sacred food in the 8th century, and slightly later we find them as food for the New Year celebrations. Mochi were thought to symbolize long life, and also - very practical - to be good for one's teeth.

Today the following use is still made of mochi at New Year:
  • Kagami-mochi or "mirror mochi." A decorated stack of two rounded mochi cakes put on display during the New year - usually from the 28th until several days after the New Year. The name comes from the round shape which reminded the Japanese of pre-modern, bronze mirrors. Finally, these mochi would be broken into pieces ("kagami-biraki," "the opening of the mirror"), roasted and eaten. (See also my post on Japanese customs in January at Japan Navigator).
  • Zoni. Mochi are a must at festive occasions, such as the New Year. The most common way to eat them at the New year celebration is to add them to a soup called zoni.
[Shop producing mochi in Fushimi, Kyoto]

Other ways of eating:
  • Abekawamochi. Wrapped in nori (isobe-mochi), or covered in roasted and sweetened soy flour (kinako). 
  • In zenzai and shiruko. Toasted mochi are also eaten in zenzai, a chunky sweet soup with azuki beans popular in winter as a snack.
  • In Chikara Udon, "power noodles" with mochi added.
Finally, like the mochigome of which it is made, mochi are often used in confectionery, for example:
  • Sakuramochi, wrapped in salted cherry leaves, a spring specialty of Kyoto.
  • Kusamochi. Another sweet for spring made from mochi and leaves of Japanese mugwort (yomogi). Can also be filled with anko, sweetened red bean paste made from azuki beans.
  • Kashiwamochi. Round-shaped mochi filled with sweet bean paste (an) and wrapped in an oak leaf (from the kashiwa or Daimyo Oak).
  • Daifuku (-mochi), a small round mochi stuffed with sweet filling, most commonly anko.
  • Ohagi. Steamed balls of glutinous rice wrapped in red bean paste - so exactly the reverse of Daifuku.
  • And even "mochi ice cream," mochi with an ice cream filling, which is an internationally available Japanese snack. 
Health hazard: every year people die in Japan because of choking on sticky mochi. Especially the elderly are at risk. To prevent this, cut the mochi into small pieces before eating it.