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.
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.
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).
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!