Mochi Celebrates the Season

Kristen McQuillin builds castles in the air with ooey gooey sticky chewy mochi

photo courtesy of
Mochi The moon rabbit pounds away. Look up during a full moon and you can see her making the mochi (rice cakes). She stands at the right, her ear flopping over to the left as she pounds rice in a mortar below her.

The moon rabbit isn't the only one pounding mochi this time of year. Temples and shrines around Japan pull out their giant stone mortars and wooden mallets to practice mochitsuki?the rice pounding that crushes steamed rice into sticky mochi rice cakes.

Mochi figures in New Year celebrations as food and decoration. Kagami-mochi, "mirror mochi," is constructed of two large rice cakes stacked on one another and topped with a mikan (mandarin orange). Symbolism? You bet! Two for good luck, they symbolize the sun and moon; the round shape stands for smooth harmony and long life. The mikan covers wishes for wealth because of its color and for fertility because of its many seeds.

Kagami-mochi is placed in the main room of the house and furnishes the New Year's god, Toshigami-sama, with a holiday home and a special meal. On the seventh of January, when New Year decorations are taken down, the kagami-mochi is cut into pieces and eaten.

Mochi cake that's been sitting out for a week is an acquired taste... if plain mochi (whether fresh or aged on the family altar) isn't to your liking, you can dip it in soy sauce, wrap it in nori, then toast it; mix bite-size balls with natto and wasabi; dust it with green tea powder; deep fry it and roll in sesame seeds; even substitute it for cheese on toasted sandwiches!

MochiOr turn your mochi into ozoni, the New Year's day soup. Nuggets of the sticky stuff float in a soup broth. Here in Tokyo, ozoni is made like chicken soup. In Osaka, ozoni is based on miso soup. Ozoni is eaten along with the traditional osechi-ryori (New Year cuisine) for the first days of the new year.

To ensure long life, stretch the mochi with your chopsticks as you bite into it. The longer it stretches, the longer you'll live. Ironically, every year the news reports on old folks who choke on their long-life mochi, so be careful!

If you get hooked on mochi this New Year, you won't have to wait until January 2001 for your next fix. All year long you'll find mochi sweets in supermarkets, at festivals, and even in songs... those "three dango brothers" are made of mochi. The style of mochi treat varies with the season?skewered dango in summer, giant ohagi in the autumn, pink sakura mochi in spring, warm zenzai soup in the winter?and all are delicious, chewy treats.

If you really can't get enough mochi, expand your vocabulary with these two mochi-related tidbits:

E ni kaita
mochi literally means a drawing of a rice cake and it equates to the English proverb "a castle in the air." The root of the proverb is 1600 years old?a Chinese historian wrote that "failing to appoint the nobility to positions where they can excel is like drawing a rice cake on the ground and not being able to eat it."

The word gabei which means "to come to nothing" derives from the same story. The kanji in gabei are those for drawing and mochi.

Try it Yourself: Mochi Recipes
Unraveling the Mystery of Mochi Ingredients

When you walk into your local grocery store, you may find yourself perplexed by the huge number of different rice flours and bean jams available. Here's a brief rundown of what's what:

mochi gome -> glutinous rice
uruchi mai -> non-glutinous rice
    (regular Japanese rice)
mochi ko -> glutinous rice flour
shiratama ko -> granular mochi ko
uruchi ko -> non-glutinous rice flour
dango ko -> a mixture of mochi ko and
    uruchi ko
kina ko -> toasted soybean flour
katakuri ko -> thickening starch made of
    dogstooth violet or potato
koshi an -> strained bean jam
tsubu an -> unstrained bean jam

Mochi: Traditional Method

Ingredient: Mochi gome
Equipment: Mortar and pestle or an automatic mochi pounding machine, steamer

Steam glutinous rice until soft and sticky, but not too soft. In the mortar or the mochi machine, pound the steamed rice so that no grain is left. This will take longer than you want it to and it's a good idea to do it with friends to share the work! Remember, the moon rabbit has been at this for centuries but it shouldn't take you that long. When pounding is complete, pluck off bits and roll into balls.

Mochi: Microwave Method

Ingredients: 300g dango ko 50g sugar (optional) 300ml hot water

In a large bowl, mix the flour and sugar then slowly add hot water. stirring well after each addition. You are aiming for a slightly sticky, firm dough the consistency of play dough. Put the dough ball into a microwave - safe bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Microwave for four minutes. Remove, stir well, cover and microwave again for three minutes. Remove and sample?if it tastes like raw flour, stir it again, cover it and return it to the microwave for two more minutes. When done, pound the mochi with a wooden pestle until smooth and shiny. Pluck off pieces and roll into balls. This mochi is perfect for an mochi (below) or skewer the balls and spread with koshi an (sweet bean jam) to make dango.

Mochi: Boiling Method

Ingredients: 250g shiratama ko 230ml water

In a large bowl, slowly add water to the flour, stirring well after each addition. Be careful not to add too much water; the dough will be slightly soft but should not "melt" out of shape. Boil water in a large saucepan. Form bite-sized balls of dough and drop them into the boiling water. Turn the flame to medium and cook the mochi until all the balls are floating. Remove from the heat, drain the hot water and immerse the mochi in cold water to stop the cooking. Drain well. These mochi balls are great for zenzai (below). Substitute dango ko for shiratama ko to make mochi for ozoni (below) or sticks of skewered dango.

Mochi: Grocery Method
At your local supermarket, ask someone to help you find the mochi!

Tips on Working with Mochi

- To prevent mochi from sticking to your hands or utensils, wet them with lightly salted water.
- Clean as you go. Mochi dries to a hard crusty glue. Wipe it off your counters and cooking equipment while it's still damp.
- Mochi is hot! Pound it until it cools slightly before attempting to form it.
- Mochi keeps for up to a week if tightly wrapped. For longer storage, refrigerate (2-3 weeks) or freeze (3-4 months).

Ozoni Tokyo Style
serves 4
Ingredients: 4 kaku mochi (rectangular mochi cake) or 12 mochi balls (see boiling method above) 200g chicken, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp soy sauce, 800ml dashi (fish stock), 1 tsp sake, 100g komatsuna (rape leaves) or other leafy green, 4 naruto slices (pink-spiraled fish paste cakes), mitsuba (trefoil)

Boil komatsuna, spinach or leafy green of your choice, drain well. In the soup pot, bring fish stock, salt, soy sauce and sake to a simmer. Debone the chicken and cut into bite-sized pieces and add to stock. Grill the mochi under a broiler or in a frying pan until brown on both sides. Place the mochi, greens, and naruto in the serving bowl and ladle broth and chicken into the dish. Garnish with citron and mitsuba.

Sekihan serves 6
Ingredients: 100g azuki (small red beans), 400g mochi gome, 1 tsp kuro goma (black sesame seeds), shiso (beefsteak leaf)

Rinse the mochi rice and soak for at least an hour. In a saucepan, cover the beans with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for an hour until the beans are soft but not completely cooked. Drain the beans, saving 3 tsp of the liquid. Combine the beans, drained rice, bean liquid and fresh water in the rice cooker and cook as usual. When the rice is finished, stir the mixture and serve garnished with sesame seeds and shiso.

An Mochi makes 12 pieces
Ingredients: 300g koshi an (sweet bean jam), mochi (half of the microwave recipe above), kina ko, to dust

Roll the koshi an into 12 small balls. Set aside. Make the mochi. When the dough is sticky and glossy, divide into twelve pieces. Sprinkle each ball lightly with shiratama ko or water and flatten into thin rounds with the edges thinner than the center. In the center of each round, place a koshi an ball. Gather the edges of the dough together to form a closed bag around the an and place on the serving tray with the seam side down. Dust with kina ko.

Zenzai serves 4
Ingredients: 8 mochi balls (from boiled method above), 400g koshi an or tsubu an 800ml water, 30g sugar, 1/2 tsp salt

Combine the an paste, water, sugar and salt in a soup pan; stir well and bring to a low simmer. Into each individual serving bowl, place two mochi balls and pour the hot bean soup over them.

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