To American ears, the word mochi brings to mind the sweet, chewy ice-cream dessert. However, in Japan, mochi has a much larger meaning. Traditionally, the word mochi refers to a type of glutinous pounded rice cake-- or what makes the distinct outer coating of mochi ice cream. Mochi is made from a special type of extra short grain japanese rice called mochigome. The grains of mochigome are so short that they are nearly spherical, and stick to one another when cooked. The process of making mochi traditionally entails using a large wooden mortar and pestle to pound the cooked mochigome until it is a smooth, sticky, chewy, dough-like consistency. Modern machinery facilitates this process immensely and small automatic mochi pounding machines can be purchased for use at home. Mochi is also commonly sold frozen, or in a shelf-stable form in most Asian grocery stores.
In Japan, mochi has been ceremonially eaten on New Year’s day for over 1000 years, making it known as one of several New Year’s foods. Because of its ceremonial nature, mochi on New Year’s Day is something of a special affair. New Year’s mochi is sold as a type of decoration called kagami mochi. Kagami mochi consists of two somewhat large round mochi cakes stacked on each other with the smaller one on top, and a daidai, or Japanese bitter orange, crowning the entire arrangement. Additional decorations for kagami mochi often include red and white folded paper, skewered dried persimmons, fern leaves, and ornately knotted cords, all meant to symbolize good luck for the coming year. Kagami mochi is placed in a household’s shrine a few days before New Year’s, and then ceremonially broken into small pieces and eaten as a part of New Year’s Day celebrations.
Aside from being a New Year’s food, mochi is widely used as a component in Japanese confections such as daifuku (red bean filled mochi balls, similar to mochi ice cream) but it is not limited to being only a dessert. Mochi can be eaten with soy sauce and seaweed, vinegar and daikon radish, or with kinako powder and brown sugar, making it a versatile snack. Varying preparation techniques only add to the versatility of mochi. Mochi can be heated with hot water, which retains is soft and sticky texture, or grilled, which gives it a crunchy outer skin and molten center, somewhat similar to that of a toasted marshmallow. With so many options available that cater to a number of different tastes, it is easy to enjoy mochi no matter the season.