In Japan, mochi is comfort food: sticky balls of rice with a satisfyingly chewy texture, topped with a variety of sweet or savory toppings. It’s also said to bring good fortune, so it’s traditional to serve it at holiday meals. The New Year is an extra-special time when it comes to mochi: Not only are you supposed to eat it, but you’re also supposed to get involved in making it. Pounding the rice, or mochi-suki, is a raucous group ritual meant to purge yourself of all the things that you want to put behind you in the old year.
“We’ve been pounding a long, long time. We’ve been pounding mochi since the sixth century,” said Youko Yamamoto, proprietor of Gomen-Kudasai Noodle Escape in New Paltz as she introduced the restaurant’s tenth annual Mochi-Tsuki last Saturday. “This is the way we get rid of bad disease and bad energy for the New Year!”
The rice — a sweet, glutinous short-grained variety like that used for sushi rolls — is steamed, and then dropped while still hot into a large wooden mortar called an usu, along with some water. Then the rice is pounded, preferably by two people alternating swings, using large mallets called kine. Every so often, a third individual darts in with wet hands and turns the wad of mochi over.
Gomen-Kudasai had a full house on Saturday, and neophyte mochi-pounders gathered in front of the restaurant to try their hands at the lucky ritual. Gomen-Kudasai’s ceremonial usu was hand-carved from a tree stump by Yamamoto’s husband, Kazuma Oshita, who is a sculptor by profession. “You have to do it while it’s hot,” Oshita admonished. “Just squish it at first. Otherwise you’ll splash all the water out.”
Two volunteers made some gentle, tentative taps until the rice began to absorb the water. Then they began to swing at the mass in earnest. Oshita showed them how to pound with the proper finesse, twisting the head of the mallet slightly with each stroke to squeeze the developing mochi. Yamamoto did the turning, and soon the pile of rice grains was transformed into a gummy mass.
When it was ready, she carried the mochi inside while Oshita washed out the usu and fetched another batch of rice from the steamer. The line to sample mochi was even longer than the one to participate in the pounding. Each customer was required only to say his or her name and wish Yamamoto a Happy New Year. She rolled the mochi between her palms into golfball-sized spheres and placed three in a paper bowl for each taker, telling one, “You might find a piece of wood in it. Go ahead and eat it. It’s good for the digestion.”
Yamamoto admonished her guests to put only one sauce or flavoring on each rice ball: “Do not mix them up!” The array of garnishes on offer included natto, or fermented soybeans; goma, grated black sesame seeds with salt; kinako, roasted soybean powder; karami, grated daikon with soy sauce; anko, red bean paste; and isobe maki, nori with soy sauce.
While its roots are ancient, mochi-tsuki is still a popular annual tradition in Japanese families. “We used to do this with my grandparents at a big family gathering,” said New Paltz resident Sakura Kojima. “Grandpa would do the pounding; Grandma would do the turning. They would make mochi for the whole family.” The food is available all year round, but is considered a special holiday treat, she said. “We eat it for all the special occasions. But the mochi-tsuki is only for the end of the year. It’s a way of welcoming the New Year, of appreciating the harvesting of the rice — all the hard work that goes into it. And it’s a way of sharing with the community.”