Seasonal spotlight: mochi
Some Japanese foods are more difficult for foreigners to eat than others. The ones that immediately spring to mind are nattō and various unfamiliar sea creatures like sea urchin or fish eggs or teeny tiny squid. But there are also certain Japanese foods that have almost universal appeal; I’ve never heard anyone protest being served curry rice or tempura and I’ve never met anyone who actively dislikes miso soup. In particular, one food that is often eaten during the winter and that seems to appeal to most people is mochi, a type of pounded rice cake made from mochigome (glutinous rice). After all, who doesn’t like the taste of rice?
Many people translate “mochi” as “sweet rice cakes,” but that’s a bit misleading because most mochi isn’t actually sweetened. To make mochi, glutinous rice is steamed and pounded into a paste and then dried until hard. At that point it can be grilled, microwaved, put in soup, or prepared in a number of other ways. Mochi is often enjoyed in the middle of winter, and even now there are events where people take turns at the long and difficult task of pounding the rice in a mortar until it is a viscous paste (mochi tsuki), but most people buy their mochi at the store. Many temples also toss mochi to spectators as part of various rituals (this is called “mochi maki” or “mochi nage”).
Mochi can be square or round, made of white or brown rice, plain or flavored with flecks of green nori seaweed, stuffed with anko (sweetened red bean paste), or cut into paper-thin sheets. The simplest way to eat it is to grill it over a burner or under the broiler until it is puffed up, then dip it in a bit of soy sauce and wrap it in a piece of nori. Mochi can also be put into any kind of soup or hot pot dish, and I’ve even had it served in ramen. Dango (dumplings) made from mochiko (mochi flour) are also covered with savory or sweet sauces – I fell in love with dango smeared with sweet bean paste during my first year in Japan, and I ate so many that I don’t think I’ll ever need to eat one again.
Mochi has especially deep connections with the Japanese New Year celebrations, when people display “kagami mochi” (literally “mirror mochi”) which are big round rice cakes that are decorated with ceremonial objects. After the celebrations are over the mochi are broken apart (called “kagami biraki,” or “opening the mirror”) and eaten. In the past, people displayed large handmade mochi on a wooden stand called a sanpō (note to Japanese language students: this word will never appear on any vocabulary quiz) and decorated them with real fruit and other objects. Nowadays most people buy small kagami mochi wrapped in plastic at the grocery store, many of which come with a convenient paper stand to display them on and plastic decorations that can be thrown away after opening the mochi.
Rather than religious events and celebrations, outside of Japan mochi is usually associated with dessert and often served with ice cream, frozen yogurt, crepes, and other similar foods. In Japan as well mochi stuffed with ice cream is a common thing to see both at convenience stores and cute little cafes, and round mochi balls are a favorite item atop elaborate parfaits.
One of my favorite ways to eat mochi is in ozōni, the soup that is traditionally served on New Year’s morning. But since over a month has already passed since the New Year, here are a few other ways to enjoy mochi.
- How to cook mochi from DashiDashi
- Basic sweet mochi from CHOW
- Japanese mochi ice cream from Japanese Ice Cream
- Strawberry daifuku mochi from Chocolate & Zucchini
- Yakimochi (grilled mochi) from Momofukufor2
- Butter mochi from ‘Ono Kine Grindz
- Moffles (mochi waffles) from Kirbie’s Cravings
- Mochi pizza from Dad in a Foreign Land