As today brings the first day of 2014, the sounds of folks slurping ozoni soup will resound in households that celebrate Japanese customs. It’s similar to the way a popping champagne cork at midnight signifies the merriment of a new calendar turning over, or a pot of black-eyed peas symbolizes abundance and wealth in the South.
But in this case we’re talking about mochi, the glutinous Japanese rice cake that’s the star ingredient of ozoni soup. These chewy confections are a hallmark food of Japanese new year celebrations, whether served in a soup or as a stand-alone treat. They symbolize strength, good fortune and, in more traditional times, the celebration of a bountiful rice harvest.
Many hands are generally needed to make mochi, similar to the assembly-line approach of a tamalada, or a tamale making party. To get the best sense of mochi’s community-building properties, visit the Buddhist Church of Florin on Sunday. The congregation is hosting its annual Mochi Madness to celebrate the beginnings of 2014. Along with mochi tastings, participants can contribute to a potluck and learn the finer points of pounding mochi into the perfect shape.
“It’s a fun, happy occasion,” said Fumie Shimada, an organizer and keeper of recipes for the event. “Everyone gets together and it’s a community gathering, really. Some (mochi) go on the altar in two or three layers as an offering. We show the younger kids the traditions.”
Forms of mochi as a celebratory food date back to the 10th century. It’s long been a signature food for Japanese new year celebrations, or oshogatsu. Such colorful new year foods, including simmered soy beans, pink and white fish cakes and mashed sweet potatoes, are known as osechi-ryori.
But finding freshly made mochi isn’t easy, even with the abundance of rice in the greater Sacramento area. Osaka-Ya on 10th Street in downtown Sacramento remains the only local shop, and one of few in all of Northern California, to make mochi.
That’s where the churches step in, especially around the holidays each year. Making mochi is a multistep process that takes careful attention from an entire crew, but often borders on a social event.
The process includes an overnight soak of sweet rice and then steaming it until the solution forms into a sticky, taffy-like glob. The most important part might be pounding this concoction with a wooden mallet ( kine) in a stone mortar ( usu) until it is perfectly smooth and creamy. The steaming process takes place in wooden baskets known as seiro. A cutting machine forms the mochi into small individual mounds, but they’re sometimes finessed by hand.
Mochi-making machines, similar to bread-makers, are sometimes used for the sake of ease and convenience. The crew at Mochi Madness prefers the old-school approach that requires some muscles and elbow grease to make handcrafted mochi.
“It takes us two pounders, someone on the steamer and a crew of ladies to form it into little balls,” said Shimada. “In the olden days, farmers would get together, five or 10 families, and pound it. This was a potluck party that went on all day in the barns.”
The activity at each Mochi Madness usually results in about 40 pounds of mochi, which takes on many different interpretations, from sweet to slightly salty. The younger participants tend to gravitate toward mochi fashioned like miniature peanut butter cups. Others are stuffed more traditionally with red beans, or dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and sugar.
Preserving such mochi traditions is of key importance in the event. It’s up to the younger generations to keep mochi from becoming a forgotten food. Some of the veteran mochi makers offer their tutelage to the kids.
“We let the younger kids have a couple swings (of the mallet) to get a feel of it,” said Shimada. “It’s not about how hard you pound it, but the steadiness. It’s the rhythm you need to have.”
After all, no new year would be complete without these mounds of mochi.
“It’s very traditional for New Year’s,” said Shimada. “You have to have mochi ozoni the first thing when you wake up for good luck.”