Sunday was March first, and I was hoping to find my way to Ise for the long-awaited return of tsuitachi mochi (朔日餅). Had my girlfriend gotten the day off, I would have hazarded anything to sit by the brazier (火鉢・hibachi) with her enjoying some chewy goodness. With her working away, I accepted another friends invitation to head towards the nearest mountain and make our own mochi.
He works at a gakudou (学童), which is an after school club for students whose parents are busy. Gakudou are an interesting combination of homework enforcement, counseling, and playtime. Generally these facilities are a large single-room structure adjacent to (or on) elementary school lots. I taught for a couple weeks in June and a couple days in December at this elementary school, and many kids took an interest in me and my methods; particularly, the after school club kids. Since I met the leader many years ago at a favorite restaurant/watering hole, he has invited me to interact with the kids a couple times.
Our first event together was tateboshi (建干し) fishing, in which fish are caught by hand from inside a netted area. Most of my time there was spent entertaining some of the kids, where I took pride in helping one girl over her paralyzing fear of the water. Honesty works really good with children: she asked me if there were sharks in the sea, and I gave her the long answer which included the answer, “Yes.” Trusting, after that, that I wasn’t lying to her, she was able to accept my explanations of sharks and their habits. We all had a lot of fun playing after that and didn’t encounter any sharks.
Sunday I headed to the idyllic location surrounded by a bamboo grove loved by monkeys and deer. I’ve been involved in making mochi a few times now, but each time I get more knowledge of the process. One day I hope to have my own tools and have regular parties on December 30th. Traditionally, mochi is made for the new year and shouldn’t be made before the 30th… of course, everyone is busy on the 31st, so this really means ‘should only be made on the 30th’.
Outside of this traditional time, many schools have events for the students to learn about their heritage which may be scheduled anytime after harvest. Sunday’s event turned out to be a fund raiser for the club, so we had to make a considerable volume.
Special rice, which is more easily turned glutinous, is used to make mochi. Kindling is fed into a cylindrical fire stand upon which rests a metal pot of water. A large number of pans, with mesh bottoms, are stacked on the pot and a lid is set on the top. Everything is designed to fit neatly together, making a kind of chimney for the steam from the pot. Rice, wrapped in something like cheesecloth, is in each pan. The pans are added and removed in stages, so that the rice is the right consistency each time a batch is pounded into mochi.
A key point I learned this time was: after placing the rice into the large pestle, it should be smooshed with the large wooden mallets to start the process of generating one mass. From there we take turns pounding the mass. One honored (and brave) soul has the job of reaching in and adjusting the mass – turning, folding, and lifting – in between strikes of the mallet. You can see that power and pace are valued more highly than speed on the part of the strikers. Turners carefully dip their hand into a water bowl each time to moisten the outside of the mass; and the strikers occasionally moisten the end of the mallet. Without moistening, the process of turning this into a chewy mass of goodness, would leave the mallet, the turner’s hand, the pestle, and the mass of rice stuck together like a bad Uncle Remus flashback.
If you’ve tried machine made mochi products, you may think mochi is very good, but once you’ve tried the handmade product you’ll notice a distinct difference in texture and consistency. Sunday’s product was the gummiest and best I’ve had so far.
Many toppings are added to mochi to give different flavors: some desserty, some vegetable, some other. Also, some mochi is poured out flat and frozen/dried into bricks, which can be toasted over a fire and flavored with soy sauce and sugar. These bricks keep for a long time.
Delivery services were relegated to my friend, so I didn’t get to see a lot of him, but the next day we exchanged friendly banter by cell phone messages; wherein, he stroked my pride by telling me he learned more about interacting with children by watching me. Since he is a professional, I valued his input.
I hope the event was a success. Personally, I bought one of each food product to help out and have replaced the term ‘food baby’ with ‘mochi belly’.