What is mochi tsuki?
Japanese have many foods that they eat to celebrate different occasions throughout the year. Most of these are seasonal items and bring with them special memories and celebratory feelings.
During the New Year season, one food commonly enjoyed among families and friends is mochi. Made from glutinous rice, this sticky, chewy treat is often classified as a dessert but can be served with both savory and sweet toppings. A team of two people work together to pound the rice by hand for several minutes using special tools.
Our family got to participate in a mochi making event, called “mochitsuki” （餅搗き） twice this year.
The first event was at our church on December 31 after the morning service. Six of us met the day before to prepare the rice. First, it was measured carefully, then thoroughly washed. Since the final product is a sticky rice cake, the uncooked rice needed to be washed 6-7 times in cool water while rubbing our hands through it to remove as much dust as possible.
Then we filled the 6 bowls of rice with water until it covered the rice completely to soak overnight. Half of the bowls were colored with red food dye to give us lightly pink colored mochi.
Also, on Saturday, the men pulled out the wooden bowl used to pound the rice, called usu, and presoaked it with hot water several times so it wouldn’t split during the pounding the next day. Jonathan and I received instructions to repeat the hot water soaking process again Sunday morning a few times. The picture below is a stone usu used at the kindergarten’s mochi tsuki, a bowl of water to keep the mochi from sticking to the usu or kine (hammer), and two wooden kine soaking in warm water.
On Sunday morning, we set up the steamers. Mochi rice is steamed rather than boiled, so the bottom layer of these stacked pans has only water in it, followed by layers of rice wrapped in cheesecloth.
The church members all signed up for various toppings and ingredients to make the mochi meal completely delicious. Some favorite toppings for mochi include the following:
* sweet soy sauce
* kinako (roasted soy bean powder)
* small strips of nori (seaweed)
* koshian (sweet red beans)
* natto (fermented soybeans)
* cheese & kimchi (spicy fermented Korean cabbage)
* onion and daikon (Japanese radish)
* sweet bean paste and strawberry
I don’t have photos of how each of these look when presented as a dish, but I like all of them!! They take some getting used to as they are the polar opposite to the Western (hemishphere) palate.
Let’s Make Mochi!
Now, back to the process of making mochi. Once the rice was steamed, it is brought to the pounding bowl called an usu (oo-soo) where it is slowly worked into a cohesive blob instead of individual grains of rice.
Pounding the Mochi
Once this has been accomplished, it can be pounded out properly with the giant mallet called a kine (kee-neh). The process is pretty straightforward and involves two people, one to hammer and another to keep the mochi wet so it won’t stick to the bowl or mallet. The hardest part is making sure the water person’s hands don’t get smashed!
The pounding is a tiring job, usually done by the men and boys, though some ladies jumped in to give it a try. The hammering builds camaraderie as everyone takes a turn. At church, we did all this out on the sidewalk and had several people stop by to take a peek. This mochi event is a good outreach as well since many people in Japan are apprehensive about Christianity and church but would feel comfortable attending an event like this, giving the church an opportunity to reach out to these families and form a friendship.
At the kindergarten, Jonathan and 3 other men did all the pounding into the school’s (very heavy) stone usu.
Shaping the Mochi
Once each batch has been pounded for 15 minutes or so and is very stretchy and sticky, it was handed over to the ladies to prep and shape.
At church, a layer of cornstarch went down in each tray to keep the mochi from sticking. The ladies tore it into smaller balls and set them out for a buffet line with all the toppings. Some of the ladies made ichigo daifuku which is mochi wrapped around a strawberry and sweet bean paste. Considering that a pack of 9 strawberries can cost around $7USD, it was a special treat for us all!
At the kindergarten mochi event, each child took a turn using the kine to pound the rice.
The students also got to make ankomochi (filled with sweet bean paste). The moms worked quickly to help nearly 80 kids make their treats in under 15 minutes. Everyone took their handmade treat home to show mom and dad later that day. After the children had their turns, the moms cut or tore the mochi into bite-sized pieces for the children’s lunches. Mochi is very chewy, so small pieces were necessary for the children’s safety. The moms all made a buffet serving line for the kids to come eat as much as they could with their favorite toppings for the school lunch.
While two plain white mochi stacked on each other with a small bitter orange on top can be a religious symbol and offering during the New Year, the regular and unceremonial mochi is a snack enjoyed by all.
We have enjoyed eating mochi since we first arrived in Japan, but this year, we were so happy to expand our experience with making and eating it fresh. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about another facet of Japanese life.
Thanks for joining us!
Click the link below to see a short clip from the kindergarten’s mochi pounding. Once the page opens, click the video to begin playing.