A new year’s delight
Ring in the new year with mochi, one of Japan’s chewy, delicious and culturally rich foods.
Air horns and cheering are often associated with New Year celebrations in Canada, but in Japan, it’s the sound of a mallet pounding on rice.
Step out into town on New Year’s Day in Japan and you’ll find grand festivities and celebrations taking place on every corner. With kimono-clad crowds heading to local shrines to pray for good luck and fortune in the coming year, the streets are filled with busy stalls and festive shoppers—but nothing is more symbolic of the new year than the activity of mochitsuki, or the making of mochi by pounding rice in a large wood or stone pestle. People line up to take turns holding a heavy mallet and pounding the sticky white substance as the surrounding crowd cheers and shouts. Eventually, after enough pounding, the substance is transformed into chewy cakes which are handed out to everyone.
Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made from mochi-gome, a sticky and sweet type of rice that is pounded into a paste and moulded into shapes. Although it was traditionally consumed in savoury dishes on New Year’s Day, it is now eaten year-round and widely used in desserts. In fact, you might be familiar with the heavenly and delicious mochi ice cream (mochi filled with ice cream), which can be found almost anywhere nowadays.
Its chewy texture and mild flavour make mochi a versatile companion to various foods, much like the role played by white rice.
Rice and mochi have historically been considered the food of the gods in Japan. A famous legend tells the story of a rich man who disgracefully used leftover rice to make mochi as a practice target for his bow and arrow. Before he could release his arrow, the mochi turned into a white swan and flew away. Thereafter, the man’s rice fields were devastated and his family fell into ruins—the moral of the story being that rice and mochi should not be used wastefully. Mochitsuki is a ritual that brings whole communities together to symbolize the preparation of foods for the gods, who in turn bring forth a fruitful and blessed year.
A New Year’s staple, the kagami mochi is a traditional decoration made with two flat and round mochi—a small one on top of a larger one—that symbolizes a seat for the gods. The Shinto belief is that the gods of the new year reside on these mochi until a ritualized eating of them (kagami biraki) on the second Saturday or Sunday in January, at which point the spiritual power of the gods enters the body to renew the eater’s life force for the rest of the year.
A treasured part of Japanese cuisine, mochi is culturally significant in more ways than one.
- Mochi is popular among athletes because of its compact size and richness in carbohydrates. In fact, it is 35 per cent richer in carbohydrates than its equal amount in rice.
- Depending on the region, mochi is moulded into circles (Kansai region) or rectangles (Kanto region).
- Because of its chewy and dense texture, mochi is a serious choking hazard. Each New Year’s Day, dozens of people reportedly choke to death. Remember to take small bites!
- An early predecessor of mochi ice cream using rice starch and rice milk appeared in 1981. Mochi ice cream as we know it was made popular stateside by a Japanese-American woman in the 1990s. It can now be found in grocery stores across North America, Japan, Europe and Africa.