It’s the New Year, and in Japan that means its time for mochi! Mochi is a Japanese treat made from pounded rice. While mochi is now eaten throughout the year, it’s a favorite for the New Year’s season. It’s generally served as a stuffed dumpling with fillings varying by region, taste, and tradition. On the left is a sweet bean filled mochi served on a getto leaf.
How to Make Mochi
Mochi starts out as cooked (steamed) white rice. Small batches can be made by a variety of methods, but I’ll go over what I saw on New Years Day at the local shrine.
A hollowed segment of tree trunk is used to contain the rice after its cooked. The convenient round bowl-shape holds up to the hard wood mallets used to smash the rice into the sticky concoction that is mochi.
1. Prep the bowl and mallets by cleaning them well, then soak them in hot water. You’ll want a large tub of drinkable hot water handy both to keep the mallets wet, and to add along the way. For the bowl simply rub ample amounts of hot water all over so its wet, but remove any standing water. You’ll also want to prep a work table to make the individual mochi dumplings. Here you might want to tape down clear plastic. Prepare your fillings. Simple fruit (strawberries or oranges), chocolate, or sweet beans work well, but you can experiment. You’ll also need rice flour (it’s very fine). Use the flour to dust your plastic and a tray for transporting the mochi, it will keep the mochi from sticking. There is a brown powder that can be used for the same purpose, but that provides a slightly different flavor and dryer texture.
2. Put the cooked rice into the bowl. Use the large mallets to slowly mash the rice until it forms a single bunch. **You can do mochi as one batch or several small ones depending on the size of your bowl and the number of people. The smaller the batch the faster it will become the consistently smooth texture you’re looking for.
**Now for the fun part. Add some hot water to the rice and fold it a few times by hand. Get two friends (or do it by yourself,,, not as much fun) to swing the large mallets into the center of the rice one at a time. Speed isn’t necessary. Let them pound away for a few turns, then add more water and fold the rice again. You might want to dip the mallets back in the water while folding as well. Continue until it has a uniform smooth texture (about 4-5 times).
3. Using a rice-flour-dusted tray, transport the finished mochi to your work table. Your mallets should go back in the hot water. If you are finished, pour hot water into the bowl. This will make cleaning easier than if you wait. Dust your hands with flour (after cleaning them of course) and pull off a bit of the mochi. You worked hard, try some. Pull some more off then flatten it out. Put a bit of your filling in the center, close the mochi around the filling and seal by pinching. Dust the outside with rice flour and roll it into a deliciously edible ball. Serve and enjoy.
More on Mochi
In Japan, a lot of events have their origins in times when most villager’s diets consisted of very simple food. A long time ago, when rice was used as a currency, most Japanese only got to eat rice on special occasions. A condensed rice treat then, would have more calories, and be even more special. Eating mochi on new years “to ensure health in the new year” was almost literal. It was like a version of ancient Japanese powerbar. One Japanese story, Momotaro, tells of the young peach boy offering rice based treats to ensure help in a quest. Such legends show how the traditions came to be.
Mochi takes time, energy, and to really do it right, community. All of these things tie into most Japanese celebrations. The act of creating and eating mochi brings people together for a shared experience, while also acting as an offering for the town’s, family’s, or individual’s ancestors.
Update: The brown powder you may notice on some mochi is called kinako – its soybean flour. Its a little less sweet than the rice flour but serves the same purpose, keeping the mochi from sticking to everything.
Yes. These are the mochi you’re looking for.