At school last week I had an opportunity to experience another of Japan’s many traditional practices... this time it was mochi making!
I’m not really sure how to explain exactly what mochi is... I guess in English it translates into something along the lines of a rice cake... but if you’re thinking of those dry round crispy rice cakes you buy at the supermarket then you are totally on the wrong track! Think more of a dough-like consistency that has hardly any flavour and seriously feels like chewing gum when you eat it (My English teacher was quick to tell me to make sure I only take small bites at a time to avoid choking!) In technical terms it’s a rice cake made of glutinous rice pounded into a paste and then moulded into shape.
Mochi is one of the many traditional foods they have here in Japan that is made for all kinds of occasions throughout the year... New Years being one of the main ones!
So, like anything here in Japan the day started with an opening ceremony in which we all bowed countless numbers of times... I presume we were thanking in advance all the people from the community who had come to help for the day. We were then all instructed to don our aprons and head scarves... I was a little unconventional an opted for my NZ apron rather than one of their full body smocks and wore my Santa hat rather than a bandana much to the amusement of all the students and old ladies.
It’s important to tell you at this point that on this particular day it also happened to be the coldest day we have had here thus far.... as in it was SNOWING! And not just little flakes falling from the sky every now and again... I mean a full on snow flurry that latest for most of the day!
So once we had all met the inspection of the old ladies who seemed to be running the show we were split up into three groups and each assigned to one of the three processes that are involved in the actual making of mochi.
The process is as follows:
- Polished rice is soaked overnight and then cooked
- The rice is then pounded with wooden mallets in a traditional mortar. Two people will alternate the work, one pounding and the other turning and wetting the mochi.
- The sticky mass is then formed into shapes (we only made circles) and then it is ready to eat!
I worked out pretty early on that despite us being split up into three groups there were definite gender roles... the boys did all the pounding (while the girls in the group stood round outside in the snow freezing... they all had to wear their P.E gear... so shorts!) meanwhile the girls in the groups inside did all the shaping while the boys huddle around the tiny heater.
It was interesting to watch how the whole process unfolded but I was quick to work out that the shaping of the mochi once the boys had finished pounding it outside was definitely the step to be in on as the mochi is really warm and worked wonders at defrosting my numb fingers!
I never did manage to work out exactly who we were making the mochi for but I think it was for the community to share at their New Year’s celebrations. That probably goes some way to explaining why we made a grand total of 985 mochi!