Humans are curious, inquisitive animals. Even before we developed the linguistic capabilities required to form actual questions, we investigated our surroundings and ourselves with a creative, experimental spirit afforded to us by our large, complex brains and opposable thumbs. And perhaps no question has led to such meaningful answers, such fruitful results, and such educational errors as this:
What happens when I smash it repeatedly with a heavy, blunt object?
If “it” is your younger brother, the answer is fratricide. If “it” is another heavy, blunt object, the answer is music. And if “it” is sticky rice, the answer is mochi, one of Japan’s most unique and delightful foods. If you come to this country, you will become acquainted with these ubiquitous gobs of glutinous love within five seconds of your arrival, and you will become enamored with them within ten seconds.
Nowadays, most mochi – even mochi sold in fine confectioneries – is produced mechanically, by running cooked rice through an electrified pounding and kneading machine. But every year, in the week or two preceding the dawn of the new year, communities throughout Japan (and, notably, in Los Angeles) hold annual mochitsuki 餅搗き events, literally “mochi pounding” but usually translated as “mochi making.” At mochitsuki gatherings, mochi is made the traditional way: by bashing the living daylights out of a pile of steamed rice in a huge stone mortar (called an usu 臼) with heavy wooden mallets (kine 杵).
This Sunday, I went to a community center with my taiko group to participate in my first mochitsuki. I was really excited for it, considering that mochi is delicious and that I missed the Little Tokyo mochitsuki every year I lived in Los Angeles on account that I always flew home for Christmas too early. So I woke up at 7:00 on Sunday (way too early after Saturday night’s Christmas party) to rainy skies and beads of condensation on my frozen bedroom windows. It was a dreadful morning – but it was worth it. The atmosphere at the gathering was so vibrant, I lost all urge to crawl back under my covers as soon as I arrived. All I wanted to do was pound mochi. And pound mochi I did.
Papa, the patriarch of my taiko group, told me to “Genki up!” (“Pep up!”) early on, because making the mochi, as I soon learned, is hard work. Hard, but incredibly fun. Mochitsuki actually reminded me a lot of taiko practice; it required a sense of rhythm, a lot of brute force, tolerance for blisters and soreness, and teamwork. The major differences are that mochitsuki produces mochi, whereas taiko practice usually doesn’t, and the mochitsuki “beat” has a much steeper learning curve than the taiko beat. Three people knead steaming rice in the usu with kine until it forms a rough putty, then count off, slamming the mallets down with each count. “Ichi! (whack!)” “Ni! (whack!)” “San! (whack!)” And so it goes, picking up speed, one blow after another. It was easy to learn, though there is actually some small measure of danger involved, as the kine can bounce back and hit people if they hit each other. So keeping the rhythm is very important. And fun! Click here to watch a short video I took of the action.
When the mochi is sufficiently pulverized, it is taken to a table where women and children roll hunks of mochi in rice flour and form them into balls. Some of these are left to be eaten as they are, while others are wrapped around a portion of anko 餡子 (sweet red beans), rolled in kinako, or tossed in a mixture of ponzu and grated daikon. All of these variatons were delectable, and the mochi itself was slightly different from any mochi I’ve ever had before. It was a bit more solid, more dense, more springy than usual, and it actually retained the aroma and flavor of freshly steamed rice. Most mochi hardly tastes like anything except for a vague, starchy sweetness.
Mochi is featured prominently as part of Japanese New Year’s celebrations, which is why mochitsuki meetings are so common around this time of year. It’s a shame I’ll probably have to wait another year before I get to do it again, but in the meantime, I’m determined to seek out other foods preprared by pummeling the ingredients with a cartoonishly large hammer. It’s simply the best kind of stress release imaginable.