By Peggy Chapman
Northwest Asian Weekly
If you frequent Asian markets during the year, especially around special holidays, you are probably familiar with the colorful and interesting variety of mochi, an elastic cake that is Japanese in name but multi-national in guise.
In Japan, mochi plays a pivotal role in Shogatsy (new year) celebrations. For the first three days in January, Japanese take a break from work and participate in long-standing traditions, one of which is kagami mochi, which means “mirror mochi.” Kagami mochi is a decoration placed in the home in various locations associated with Shinto gods, from the end of the year through nearly mid-January, often. Kagami mochi is said to be imbued with Toshigami, a deity said to visit during new year’s to bring life blessings.
How mochi is made
What makes mochi unique is that it’s made with rice dough. When we consider Western sweets and snacks, much is based on wheat flour, but mochi gets it distinctive chewy texture by using a special kind of rice called sweet rice, also known as glutinous or sticky rice. What is unique about mochi is that it is almost always steamed. The steaming and cooking coupled with the starchy nature of the rice gives mochi its unique and distinctive sticky texture.
Traditionally, Japanese make mochi is made by pounding steamed and cooked glutinous rice finely in a large mortar. After it is shaped and often filled, the final product is decorated, which can make mochi more than just a treat. It’s something worth more than just eating!
Rice cakes by any other name
Mochi is usually associated with Japan, but the use of glutinous rice to make rice cakesis prevalent in other countries as well, such as China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, and Korea. Rice cakes also need not be sweet. They are sometimes an ingredient in savory soups!
In Japan, mochi is traditionally made and presented as part of a celebration commemorating joy and serving as a gift (the packaging of the mochi can be a big and intricate part of the presentation, aside from decorated mochi itself). Although typically celebratory, mochi can also acknowledge departure (funerals, grief, offerings to ancestors).
The most familiar type of mochi to Westerners might be daifuku from Japan, usually filled with sweetened adzuki red bean referred to as anko, but there are also plenty of other options, from green tea to seasoned white bean. And, if you have a real sweet tooth, there is also frozen mochi filled with ice cream.
Some of the other popular rice cake varieties from around Asia include:
- Manju (Japan)/Mantou (China): A plain rice flour dough that is risen and and then steamed. It’s the texture of a bun.
- Monaka (Japan): A dessert sandwich where filling is placed between two wafers of baked mochi. On certain occasions, a special prize might be inserted instead of the traditional anko filling; good luck for the New Year!
- Kue moci (Indonesia): A glutinous rice cake also filled with a peanut paste and covered with sesame seeds
- Tangyuan (China): A dessert soup in which glutinous rice flour is mixed with a water to form balls, usually filled with black sesame paste or peanut, and suspended in a sweet clear broth soup
- Banh da lon (Vietnam): A sticky striped cake slab in which thick layers of pandan-flavored glutinous rice cake alternate with thick layers of mung bean-flavored glutinous rice cake. (end)
Peggy Chapman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A (not-so-fun) mochi fact!
Mochi can be a choking hazard!
According to Japan Today, the Tokyo Fire Department said last Friday that two people died after choking on mochi on New Year’s Day. The victims were both men, an 84-year-old and a 76-year-old.
Additionally, six people were hospitalized in the Tokyo area after choking on the sticky cakes. Suffocation deaths are caused by mochi every year in Japan, especially among elderly people. The cakes can get lodged in throats while being eaten. Most of these deaths in Japan occur in January, when the cakes are most often consumed.
If you have a message to send, perhaps say it with a gift of mochi — just make sure the recipient swallows after admiring the presentation.