The Japanese Delicacy (VII): Mochi
Mochi is a type of wagashi, usually enjoyed with green tea. It is a very popular traditional Japanese confection that covers a wide range of flavors and styles of Japanese rice cakes. They are soft, chewy, mildly sweet, and slightly sticky. Mochi comes in a variety of colors and flavors depending on the ingredients and cooking methods.
What is Mochi?
Mochi is a rice cake made from glutinous short-grain rice called mochigome and other ingredients, such as sugar, water, and corn starch. This glutinous rice is steamed, pounded, and mashed into a soft and sticky state. The process of making mochi is called “mochitsuki,” which means “pounding mochi.” Mochitsuki is hard work that requires at least two people, one to pound the mochi with a heavy hammer and the other to turn it over and add water. Now, the traditional manual way is replaced by machines. However, it is still common in Japan to make mochi manually with family and friends at festivals, which is regarded as a group activity.
Uncooked mochi has a sticky, soft, and chewy texture and tastes like rice. However, mochi is versatile and has endless flavor possibilities. Traditional mochi is filled with red bean paste. The fillings are various, such as strawberries, mango, and even ice cream. Mochi is also widely used in cooking. It can be used for grilling, baking, stewing, and frying. Freshly made mochi will harden over time, so it is best to eat it immediately after it is made. Moreover, mochi is thick and chewy, which is why it is important to take small bites and chew it all well to avoid choking.
History of Mochi
Mochi has a unique cultural significance in Japan. It is believed that mochi had spiritual power. The spiritual power also made mochi an offering to thank the gods for harvest. A legend in the Nara period (710-794) said that a rich man made mochi from leftover rice and shot it with an arrow. The mochi turned into a white bird and flew away, after which his fields became desolate. It was proven that people believed a curse would come upon anyone who showed disrespect for mochi.
As the "food of the gods," mochi symbolized good luck, health, and even happy marriages. During the Heian period (794-1185), mochi was often used in Shinto events to celebrate childbirth and marriage. Mochi was also closely related to important traditional Japanese festivals. The earliest records of mochi as part of the New Year celebration also come from the Heian period. The court nobility believed that mochi symbolized longevity, good luck, and happiness.
A small piece of mochi provided as much energy as an entire bowl of rice. Therefore, mochi was also used to provide emergency food. As a result, mochi became popular among the samurai class. In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the samurai class invented kagami mochi (mirror mochi). They placed kagami mochi in alcoves to pray for good luck in the new year.
Today, though mochi can be eaten throughout the year in Japan, it is still associated with various festivals and seasonal events throughout the year. Every year, mochi is sold and consumed in large quantities during the Japanese New Year. The custom of placing kagami mochi on a kamidana (family altar) has also been preserved.
Forms of Mochi
Depending on the fillings, shapes, materials, and cooking methods, there are several common forms of mochi.
Daifuku Mochi: Soft and round mochi with red bean paste inside. The filling can also be strawberry, chocolate, mango, etc.
Mochi ice cream: Ice cream wrapped in thin, soft mochi.
Hanabira Mochi: A semi-circular and translucent mochi with a filling inside.
Hishi Mochi: A diamond-shaped mochi with three layers.
Kagami mochi: Consists of two slices of mochi with citrus fruits on top.
Bota Mochi: It resembles a daifuku mochi, but with mochi inside and red bean paste outside.
Kinako Mochi: Sweetened soybean powder on the outside of the mochi.
Kusa Mochi: A mochi made from yomogi (mugwort). It is green in color and has a grassy aroma.
Sakura Mochi: A pink mochi filled with sweet red bean paste wrapped in a preserved sakura leaf.
Kiri Mochi: Rectangular and storable mochi cubes that can be used for grilling or added to various dishes.
Isobe Maki: Roasted mochi wrapped in a piece of nori and coated in soy sauce.