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New Year's in Japan: Mochi Pounding

Mochi cakes appear to have become a New Year's treat during Japan's Heian period (794-1185). The practice of pounding mochi together, or mochisuki, is now a rare event in Japan.

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In Japan, mochi (sticky rice dumpling) is made to commemorate special occasions, most notably the New Year.

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In Japan, mochi (sticky rice dumpling) is a tasty treat made to commemorate special occasions, most notably the New Year. Once essential to the New Year celebration, the practice of pounding mochi together, or mochitsuki, is now rare even in Japan, as busy people eat store-bought mochi rather than make their own. Traditionally, glutinous rice is washed and soaked overnight on the evening before the pounding.

The next morning the rice is steamed and placed in the usu (large mortar) where it is pounded with a kine (wooden mallet). Once the mass is soft and smooth, it is pulled into various sizes and shapes. It can be enjoyed a variety of ways: fresh, with different sauces, sweet stuffing, or seaweed.

An offering to the kani (deity), called kagami-mochi (mirror mochi), is comprised of two mochi cakes usually placed on a sheet of pure white paper in the center of a wooden tray. and topped with a bitter orange (daidai). Kagami-mochi is placed on the family altar during the New Year as an auspicious gesture that signifies hope for a happy and bright year ahead.

Mochi is used to make a variety of traditional sweets and it can be eaten right away or cured and dried for later use.  When it is cured, it hardens and can be cooked with red beans, vegetables or soups. It is also popular toasted on top of a stove, dipped in a variety of flavorings such as soy sauce and sugar or coated with toasted soy bean powder. Toasted mochi inflates to several times its original size, forming a crisp crust with a soft, chewy interior.

The exact origin of mochi is unknown, though it is said to have come from China. The cakes of pounded glutinous rice appear to have become a New Year’s treat during Japan’s Heian period (7941185). As early as the tenth century, various kinds of mochi were used as imperial offerings at religious ceremonies. A dictionary dating from before 1070 calls the rice cake “mochii.” Around the eighteenth century, people began to call it “mochi.” Various theories explain the name. One is that “mochi” came from the verb “motsu,” “to hold or to have,” signifying that mochi is food given by God. The word “mochizuki” means “full moon.”

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