Japan for the Uninvited

Japanese culture from a bemused foreign perspective

Mochi

MochiMochi is finely ground cooked rice pressed into shapes, which can be used in sweet and savory foods. If kept, they form hard blocks, which can be stored until they are needed. Mochi is also combined with roasted soy bean flour (kinako) or sweet bean paste (anko) to make traditional Japanese sweets.

Traditionally, making mochi is a group activity. Village people sat together, hand-pounding the rice with a kine (wooden mallet). According to Shinto tradition, each grain of rice represents a human soul, so the process was reflective and self-purifying for the whole community.

In some Western mythology, when we look at the moon, we see a man on it. The Chinese see a rabbit, pounding magical herbs to make the elixir of eternal life. The Japanese, with their love of obscure wordplays, envision the same rabbit pounding rice to make mochi. The name of the full moon is “mochizuki“, while “mochitsuki” means “making mochi”.

The rice cakes are extremely sticky and difficult to swallow, and many people choke to death on them every year. The New Year is a particularly dangerous season, because many people eat ozoni, a traditional soup containing mochi, which is served on New Year’s Day. Newscasts feature an annual “death toll” of all the old or drunk people who bit off more mochi than they could chew. In one case, a 70-year-old man was saved from a glutinous death by his resourceful daughter, who used a vacuum cleaner to remove the hazardous blob he was choking on.

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