Japanese Culinary Traditions

by Jean-Philippe Soule

In Japan, Oshogatsu (New Year) is the second-most important celebration of the year (after Obon in summer). Family members get together during the week preceding New Year to make Mochi (pounded rice cakes). These chewy, dumpling-like cakes are then placed on shrines as offerings to their ancestors and are consumed by the family on New Yearís Day. As it is labor intensive, most people buy pre-made Mochi, or produce it with a machine. However, in the countryside Mochi-making is a tradition that brings family together.

All locals swear that hand-made Mochi tastes much better. In Japan flavor is everything.

For traditional Mochi, the high-gluten rice is wrapped in cheesecloth and steamed in wood and bamboo steamer boxes. The wood lends chlorophyll piquancy to the rice.

The pounding of the rice is the most important part of the procedure. In the center photo, eighteen-month old Kazuki learns how to pound the rice from his grandfather. He is very focused on the action and intrigued by the sticky paste clinging to the tip of the wood "hammer." So that the rice wonít stick to the hammer, people dip the mallet in water and pound quickly.

When the pounded rice starts to form a sticky paste, the molten mass needs to be rotated to ensure even consistency throughout. Before turning the burning hot dough, people rinse their hand in cold water. When there are no whole grains left in the dough it is cut into pieces. Small mochi balls are rolled by hand and then coated in rice flour. The high gluten content makes the dough very sticky and the rice flour allows people to handle and shape the Mochi balls. When the Mochi is perfectly round, it is ready.

Mochi is very versatile; what is not consumed immediately can be used in cooking or preserved. One of the most popular preparations is to grill it over a fire. The bulk of it is dried and stored. Plain mochi will keep for months at room temperature or up to a year in the freezer. It is then prepared in various ways: boiled in soup, used as a dumpling in stew, and baked or fried and dipped in a variety of sauces.

Although most Mochi is made from plain sticky-rice, they occasionally add flavors to the dough (sweet potato, aromatic herbs, nuts, etc.). Another popular preparation is to roll mochi out into flat pieces of dough, and fill them with nuts or sweet been paste. The delicious confections are then dusted with various sweet, flavored powders.

Return to:   Viewfinder Documentaries
Japanese Culinary Traditions - Mochi

View more photos on A.W.Viewfinder
Japanese Mochi Preparation