In Japan, food plays an important role when it comes to celebrating the New Year. People eat a selection of traditional dishes, each of which has a special meaning. However, one particular food takes centre stage: mochi.
What is mochi?
Mochi is a Japanese rice cake. Although it comes in different shapes and sizes, mochi typically has a dough-like consistency and a chewy texture. Plain mochi tastes like rice and is quite versatile: it can be eaten on its own, added to soups, grilled, fried, sweetened, dipped in sauce, and filled. But mochi is much more than just a food. For centuries, mochi has been associated with the sacred and the divine and has been revered as a symbol of health and good fortune. Mochi became an integral part of New Year’s celebrations in Japan’s Heian Period (794 – 1185), when aristocrats started using mochi as religious offerings in shrines. More recently, you may have heard the word mochi in the context of news articles reporting on mochi’s potential as a choking hazard. Mochi has a thick texture, so not chewing it properly may lead to suffocation. So, if you want to enjoy mochi, make sure you chew carefully.
Mochi is made from a specific type of short grain rice called mochigome. Mochigome rice is glutinous, which means that it becomes sticky once boiled. Although the exact origins of mochi are unknown, the fact that the Chinese have been growing glutinous rice for millennia makes it possible that both glutinous rice and the mochi-making process have found their way to Japan from China. The traditional way of preparing mochi is in a ceremony called mochi-tsuki. The first step of a mochi-tsuki is to steam mochigome rice until it is very soft. Then, the steamed rice is placed into a mortar and pounded with a mallet until it binds together into a sticky paste. At least two people are needed to prepare mochi: one person to strike the rice and another person to shape the rice paste into a dough. As mochi-tsuki is both time and labour-intensive, nowadays it tends to only be performed for ceremonies or as part of events. Modern mochi production has become automated thanks to the introduction of appliances that knead rice into the desired consistency and mochi is readily available in stores year-round.
New Year’s mochi
Mochi plays the main role in two specific New Year’s traditions. The first one is to display kagami mochi (‘mirror mochi’) in one’s house at the end of the year to invite good fortune. To make kagami mochi, two round mochis are stacked on top of one another and an orange is placed on top. The decoration stays up until the 11th January, when the two mochi are broken apart with a hammer. This is called kagami biraki or ‘opening the mirror’. The dried mochi pieces are still edible and can be added to soup or fried. Second, on the first morning of the New Year, families gather to eat ozoni or zoni, a soup containing mochi and various vegetables or seafood. The exact recipe varies regionally, but there must always be mochi. Eating ozoni is an important ritual to ensure good luck in the new year. Today, Japanese mochi is available all over the world, either ready-made in (speciality) supermarkets or served in Japanese restaurants. Other Asian countries also have foods similar to mochi: nian gao in China, which is also made from glutinous rice and eaten around New Year’s, tikoy in the Philippines, and Kue Keranjang in Indonesia. South Korea’s rice cakes are called tteok, but as opposed to mochi, tteok is sometimes made from non-glutinous rice.
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Written by Janna Mack.