Japanese American Traditions
Mochitsuki: A New Year’s Tradition
In many Japanese American households and communities, an annual custom is mochitsuki—the pounding of mochi or rice cakes, which is essential to the “Oshogatsu” or New Year’s celebration. Mochitsuki is an all-day event which requires many hands, long hours, and physical labor, but is also a time of fellowship and socializing with friends and family.
Mochitsuki begins the day before, with the washing of the mochigome (sweet glutinous rice) and leaving it to soak overnight in large kettles or tubs. Early the next morning the mochigome is ready to be steamed in the seiro—wooden steaming frames. Three or four seiro are stacked one on top of the other and placed over a kettle of boiling water.
After the rice is cooked, it is dumped into the usu, or mortar, made from a wood stump, stone or concrete form. The hot cooked rice in the usu is pounded with a kine or wooden mallet. With enthusiasm and force, the mochi is pounded until the mass of rice is smooth and shiny, with no discernible individual grains of rice. An essential participant in the pounding is the person assisting who quickly darts his or her hand into the usu and turns the rice before the next rhythmic pound.
The smooth, consistent mass of mochi is turned onto a cloth or paper covered table, already spread with a thin layer of mochiko (sweet rice flour). This makes the sticky mass easier to handle. An adept person pinches off small portions of the steaming hot mochi for others, who quickly form them into flattened bun shapes with their hands. The formed mochi is then set aside to cool and is ready to eat.
Ozoni or “Mochi Soup”
Ozoni is a mochi soup cooked with vegetables and other foods. The ingredients may vary according to various regions in Japan, but the essential mochi is always present. Ozoni is partaken by practically every Japanese as the first meal of the new year, as it is considered “necessary” for the insuring of a happy new year to come.