Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mochi - A Japanese New Year's Tradition

There is a lot of construction going on in the Lodge right now.  And, we were fortunate enough to witness many of the construction workers perform a Japanese New Year tradition.  The New Year holiday begins on Dec 28th for the Japanese.  Yesterday, around 930 at least 20 of the construction workers started setting up stations in the courtyard of the Lodge, and we had the perfect view from our window.  (I must admit, I felt a little stalkerish peering out of the window all morning, but it was when I pulled out my camera that I fancied myself a secret spy, taking note of something pretty important, something that maybe I can try in the future!)

Anywho...I asked our cleaning lady what all the fuss was about and she explained that they were making Mochi, which is a New Year tradition in Japan.  So, off to the interweb I go, to find out what this detailed custom was about! 

Mochi is a Japanese rice cake that is pounded into a paste and then eaten.  There are many different things that can be done with this conconction, some put it in broth, some add sweets to the middle, some even make it into ice cream!  The gentlemen in the courtyard were adding broth to it.

First, they set up several stations. 

1.  The mixing station - they used carts to bring out three big blue barrels, full of rice, I'm assuming it had already soaked overnight, since that's what all the recipes say (Soak overnight, then cooked in the morning).  They would take out a bowl of the rice, then move it to the next station. 

2.  The cooking station - it looked to me like this wooden cooker had two parts to it:  the top part where the rice was dumped and then covered, and the bottom part where a broth was being cooked (later, when the broth was poured over the rice patties, I noticed that there were beans and some other things in the broth, not sure what it was though).  After the rice cooked for 20 minutes or so it was taken to the next station.

3.  The smashing station - the rice is now dumped into usu, a wooden mortar, and pounded with kines, big wooden mallets.  This pounding took quite a while...long enough that I'm sure my arms would have fallen off from exhaustion.  According to the interweb, the traditional way of pounding the rice in the usu is that two men on opposite sides of the usu would each have a kine and they would take turns swinging at the rice.  I did get to witness this too!  Although, they didn't do it for too long.  Occasionally, they would get out of sync and the kines would collide.  By the look on the face of one of the guys it wasn't a pleasant experience, although all his buddies standing around laughed uproariously!  As the rice was being pounded, a guy stooping beside the usu would quickly toss something on the rice and flip it,  moving his hands out of the way just in time for the kine to come crashing down again.  From what I read, he was splashing it with a little water.  After enough pounding, the rice becomes a gooey blob, or, as Mr. Shaw says, it's a paste.  From here, it moves to the next station.

4.  The kneading station - here, two things happened:  first, one guy kneaded and rolled the blob into neat balls.  He took great care to make sure they were perfect too, to the laughs of his friends.  He made a few large and a few small.  Second, another guy put the blob into plastic bags and then rolled them out flat.  I missed seeing what they did with the flattened out rice.

At around 2, they started handing out plastic containers and little styrofoam bowls.  The guy at the kneading station then tore tiny balls of rice from the pretty balls he made earlier and neatly arranged three in a row in the plastic containers and put one roll in the styrofoam bowls.  From here it was total chaos.  I couldnt' tell where people were going or what they were adding.  I did zoom in pretty close to a few of the containers to see what they were eating.  It looked like they took their container, or bowl, to one of the cooking stations and had broth poured on top of the rice.  I could see beans in the broth, but thats about it.  It looked like one of the ladies had rice wrapped inside of seaweed and it looked like another lady had chicken, not sure where that came from! 

All in all, it was a pretty neat thing to watch.  It lasted from 930 in the morning until 330 in the afternoon.  There was a lot of hard work and a lot of laughing.  I've found a few recipes online, not so sure I'll be getting myself a kine or usu, but there are other ways.