The Many Faces of Mochi

A simple Japanese rice treat.
Review Julie Min

Adventurous food lovers should try Japanese mochi, a celebratory food and everyday snack that can best be described as a sweet, soft and chewy rice cake. Though mochi can be eaten daily, it is traditionally consumed during winter and is an important feature in Japan’s New Year celebrations. It comes in a variety of colours, but as a New Year’s dish, mochi is traditionally smooth and white, symbolizing purity and freshness.

According to Dr. Kawasaki of the Asia-Canada program at Simon Fraser University, there is a Japanese expression that says women with a silky, clear complexion have haba-mochi, or mochi-like skin. Shirley Booth, author of Food of Japan, says that the pounded rice cake is thought to contain the spirit of rice and is therefore sacred. Mochi is considered holy by many because the smashing together and steaming of rice grains into one sticky mass signifies the coming together of divine spirits. The mochi-making process, called mochitsuki, is quite simple. First, the sweet rice is washed and soaked in water; it is then steamed in a large cotton-lined wooden steamer. After, it is placed into a large wooden tub, where it is pounded with a mallet made from Japanese hardwood.

You can witness mochitsuki at the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre in Vancouver. The popular demonstration features traditional mochi preparation with a huge stone mortar and wooden pestle. There are also a dozen mochi machines producing the dish. Anyone can buy the mochi, which comes with a choice of condiments, such as kinako (sweet roasted soybean flour), white sugar, grated radish, soy sauce and grated ginger.

Commercial mochi and mochi-like products such as dango, a rice flour dumpling that resembles a golf ball, can be found at specialty Japanese and Asian grocery stores across the Lower Mainland. They are also available as a dessert item at various Japanese restaurants.