Mochi-tsuki – a dangerous little delicacy
For the second straight winter before the New Year, I was invited to the Nishiyamas’ for their family tradition of mochi-tsuki, the making of sticky rice cakes. The making of mochi is usually a community event that takes place at a focal point in any given neighborhood, ie: a community center, the town shrine, or at a school. For the Nishiyamas, it’s been a long standing family tradition, which take place right outside their house. As residents in the small town of Itano, Tokushima, dating back hundreds of years – friends and neighbors have come to expect a gift box of mochi from the Nishiyamas every year around the New Year. Mochi rice cakes are one of the most popular New Year’s treats in Japan. They have a gooey, doughy-like texture and come in many different forms of taste. The preparation required in making mochi is relatively simple. Sticky rice known as mochi-gome is used rather than ‘normal’ rice. On the day prior to making the mochi, this rice is soaked in water overnight. The following morning the rice is steamed for a couple hours until it takes on a soft texture. Once the rice is cooked thoroughly it is then placed into a large stone bowl in readiness for the mochi making – and when my involvement begins. Before the mochi can be separated into individual rice cakes, the mochi must be beaten sufficiently so that the rice grains are no longer visible. Using a large wooden mallet and at times clock-work efficiency, I and two other "mochi-mashers" went to town on the rice – as a forth person, the "mochi-flipper" handles the rice after each team turn. One member mistake can result in disaster, as cooperation between the "mochi-mashers" and "mochi-flipper" is essential. The job of the "mochi-flipper" is a dangerous one and requires experience. To wet and flip the mochi as mallets are cocked and ready to be unloaded means even a momentary lapse in timing by the "mochi-flipper" can result in a broken hand. If a trust is established between all the members of a mochi-tsuki team, it can be like watching poetry in motion. This year I took a shot at being the "mochi-flipper," and finished unscathed with all 10 fingers. An interesting note to close, if making mochi was thought to be dangerous, eating it can be even more. People die every year while eating mochi. The number of deaths caused by chocking on mochi is reported in the media after the New Year.
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