Pound for Pound

Mochi Rice Cakes for the New Year
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One of the traditions that Japanese immigrants brought to Hawaii a century ago is that of pounding of mochi rice into cakes for the new year. Mochi is a type of glutinous sweet rice. It is a traditional feature of Japanese New Year's displays in the home called Kagami Mochi. Two cakes, one smaller than the other, are stacked with a mikan (tangerine) on top as an offering to the gods. Kagami Mochi are displayed on the home Shinto altar or, as in our case, in the tokonoma (alcove). On January 11, the cakes, which by then have become brittle, are broken up and toasted or put into soup. In Shinto, sharing the offering to the gods invites divine blessings.

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The pounding process is a bit of work, so large batches are made at one time. Rice is steamed in stacked trays. When ready it is placed into a strong bucket or stone bowl that has been warmed with hot water. Two or three people with large mallets made of hardwood (in Hawaii we used guava) circle the bowl and mash the rice together. When it is well mixed, the "fun" begins.

Hopefully, there are several people at hand to take a turn at the pounding and give each other a rest. While one person hits the rice with a mallet, another - the bravest in the group - turns the rice between each stroke and adds water as needed. A third person sings or calls out a rhythm to keep the pace steady. The finished product is thick and sticky and can be cut and shaped.

Meanwhile, someone should be in the kitchen readying a large kettle of soup called "zoni", (or ozoni - the o being honorific). Ozoni, which originated in Samurai quisine, is made with a clear stock flavored with soy sauce and bonito flakes to which veggies such as sliced carrots and spinach and herbs are added and of course, mochi rice cake. In western Japan they use miso soup as a base. Either way, it really hits the spot on a cold December day.

In addition to being used in ozoni, mochi cakes can be broiled or toasted. I like it wrapped in nori (thin sheets of seaweed) and served with soy sauce. Beware - mochi is very, very chewy. Take a big bite and you'll be working on it for a long time!

These days you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in Japan actually pounding mochi by hand as most rice cakes are made in factories and purchased at the supermarket. Those who still do make their own at home use electric machines to do the work. But in Hawaii, (and here and there in Japan), you can still find some families and Buddhist temples carrying on the tradition the old fashioned way.

A popular mochi based desert in Hawaii is "chichi dango" - coconut mochi dumpling. It is something I like to make at year's end that most everyone seems to enjoy. It's sweet, soft, chewy, and "coco-nutty". Here is my recipe so you can give it a try. Don't worry, no pounding involved.

Baked mochi with miso:
You'll need 2 small packages of mochiko rice flour (four cups).
In the USA, you'll find it in your supermarket in the asian foods section.
Kinako (soy bean powder) or Katakuriko (potato starch)
2 1/4 cups cane sugar
1 tablespoon white miso (my trade secret!)
1 12 oz can of coconut milk
2 cups of water
red or green food coloring

Combine mochi flour and sugar in a large bowl. make a well in the center. Combine milk and water and add to the dry ingredients. Add miso and mix well using a wire whip. Add food coloring if desired. Mix.

Pour mixture into a well-greased 9 x 13 inch pan. Cover pan completely with aluminium foil. Bake at 350 degrees F for one hour and 10 minutes.
IMPORTANT: Cool mochi for at least 10 to 12 hours. Cut into strips and gently pull out of pan. Slice into desired shapes. Roll in kinako or katakuriko (shown in picture).

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Chichi Dango

The Kinako (soy bean powder) adds a nice nutty taste. Katakuriko doesn't really have a taste. The main idea of both is that they look nice and keep your fingers from sticking to the chichi dango as you eat it!



nzm said...

The Chichi Dango looks fantastic!

Something that interests me out of what you write is that you mention that the Mochi Rice cakes are diplayed on the home Shinto altar, and still made traditionally by Buddhist temples.

So is this tradition more of a cultural influence rather than a denominational/religious activity?

Pandabonium said...

Hi NZM - Shinto has been around for thousands of years. When Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century, it was adopted by the ruling class alongside Shinto. Buddhism is a flexible and adaptive philosophy, so just as it coexisted with Taoism in China, it did the same with Shinto. For a time, temples were built on the sites of Shrines and some shrines became Buddhist temples. This changed in under the Tokugawa Shogunate which strengthened Shintoism again.

Today, most people in Japan observe the traditions of both Shinto and Buddhism. Homes often have both a shinto altar (Kamidana) and a Buddhist altar (Butsudan). Shinto for the events of one's life - growing up, marriage, etc, - and Buddhism in preparing for death and honoring those who have gone before. While people may not claim to be religious at all, both religions are inextricably woven into Japanese culture.

My short answer to your question is it is a very old cultural practice that Buddhist temples just picked it up along the way.

Don Snabulus said...

That looks both festive and tasty. Maybe I will run down to my local Asian food supply store and try to make some for the New Year.

bonnie said...

Hi! Hauoli Makahiki Hou from Brooklyn!

What a great post. Thanks SO much for the recipe! I think I'm going to stick with my original plan of making teriyaki chicken wings for the Sebago frostbite regatta on January 1st, but I will have to try making the chichi dango sometime!

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Ah ah! Give me vakalolo any day - it's pounded to death first also - taro - and soaked in a sauce made from coconut cream and brown sugar. Yum!
Going to a Fijian concert tonight - the boy and girl scouts are over for a jamboree and have a fund-raising concert with meke, songs, etc. tonight in Melbourne.

Anonymous said...

That actually sounds rather good. I copied and pasted your recipe, and while I'm not much of a cook, I think I'm gonna give it a try.
Oh, and I liked your story about the tradition of it, too.

QUASAR9 said...

Love that top pic, very Japanese
simplistic yet elegant & beautiful

That mochi sounds great
and samurai broth - hmmm

Nice to see someone in Hawaii appreciate Japanese tradition

QUASAR9 said...

Hi Pandabonium, the thing is
the minute you move, everyone else
will wanna follow to the new planet too.

Anyway can you possibly beat Hawaii
PS - You might wanna check out
A Babe in the Universe I think she's out your way somewhere

Pandabonium said...

Quasar9 - There are lots of people of Japanese descent living in Hawaii, so many Japanese traditions are practiced there. I lived on Maui for 28 years, but now reside in Japan.

When I moved to Maui from California in 1976, the very thing you say would happen with the new planet took place - everyone else moved to Hawaii too! It changed so much over the years, I decided to look elsewhere and will be headed to the South Pacific soon (I hope). Meanwhile, life in rural Japan is great.

Thanks for the link. Another great blog to explore.

PinkPanther said...

It is similar with the Chinese steamed New Year cake. In Mandarin is NIAN GAO.

Traditionally, Chinese people would cook this kind of cake in the Lunar new year, for expressing the same as good luck as Japanese did.

Seamed New Year Cake is made with peen tong a traditional Chinese brown candy that is available at Asian markets (the glutinous rice flour can also be found at Asian markets).

The recipe below can be made with either peen tong or brown sugar.
Sticky Cake Recipe
3 1/4 cups (1 400 gram bag) glutinous rice flour
2/3 cup brown sugar or 2 slabs (about 5 ounces) Chinese peen tong candy
7 ounces boiling water
1/2 cup Chinese dates, softened in water, cut in half, pits removed, or 1/2 cup other dried fruit or 1/4 cup dates and 1/4 cup nuts
1 tablespoon milk
Water, as needed
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or nonstick cooking spray

I'll have to find it out if there's any Kagami Mochiin here in these days. :-)

Pandabonium said...

Thanks for the recipe PP! Sounds tasty too. Time for a New Year's party - everyone bring a favorite dish!

The Moody Minstrel said...

Oh, good! Another new New Year's taste treat to try...not to mention a delicious-sounding, new take on mochi!

During my first shogatsu (New Year) in Japan I was more or less abandoned by my Japanese colleagues and left entirely to my own devices...with the several bags of mochi I'd been given as a gift with little instruction! I tried a few different ways of eating it, but what was really interesting was my putting a mochi cake on a stick and toasting it over the flame of my gas cooker like a marshmallow! It actually came out kind of nice, especially when I tried dipping it in different things.

Everyone thought I was really weird, but at least it helped me eat more than half that huge schlock of mochi I'd been given before it started turning green.

For a time, temples were built on the sites of Shrines and some shrines became Buddhist temples.

That includes Kashima Shrine, too. The first Buddhist temple on the precincts was built early in the 7th century (and one of the buildings can still be seen in a park a few blocks from the shrine). From about the 13th century the shrine was converted into a Zen monastery, a role it served until the Tokugawa Shogunate had all Buddhist structures except the mon gate either moved or torn down and the shrine's function as a purely Shinto site restored.

Hmm...where can I find coconut milk?

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Not on the topic but Panda, you might be interested to know that there are now bans on any sale of land in Fiji. All part of the 'National Audit'. In today's (Saturday) Fiji papers. That will stuff up some contracts and also take away 90% of the income of many lawyers.

Pandabonium said...

MM- as for temples being built on shrines, I learned that from you initially. I'll have a post soon that puts together a number of historical elements you may find of interest.

Roasting mochi on a stick sounds reasonable to me.

Wendy - yes, more house cleaning.

Bear Bear said...

That Chichi Dango makes me drop my saliva! =D

I will try to make my own Mochi by following your recipe. I love Mochi!

Pandabonium said...

Bonnie - Hauoli Makahiki Hou stay warm paddling around on New Years Day up there.

Wendy - vakalolo is good too.

MM - Besia maybe? I haven't looked around yet.

Bear Bear - Happy New Year in Singapore. I hope you enjoy the chichi dango, I think you will like it.

Elmo said...

Wow and I thought it was a big deal to make a pizza at our house! I am not sure that i understand, but why do you have to pound the crap out of rice for. It is not like you are tenderizing it. Anyway I found your blog to be beautiful and interesting.

God Bless,

Mark Ellis

Electric Bicycles and Scooters

Amanda on Maui said...

I'm planning on making chichi dango for the first time this week. I found a recipe in the University of Hawaii stuff online, it's pretty much the same but without the miso.
Yours looks just like some I picked up at the grocery store made by Home Made Bakery. That one used cornstarch instead of potato starch.
Here's hoping I don't mess it up.

Pandabonium said...

Amanda on Maui - Mahalo for visiting. I got my recipe a long time ago in a calendar from a savings & loan that had favorite recipes of emplyees.

Sometimes I've ended up with overcooked edges, but it's easy to just trim that off. The most important step is to let it cool overnight. Of course, it's sticky, so dip your fingers in whatever powder you are using before handling it. I'm sure it will come out fine. Aloha.