Mochi, or omochi as they are sometimes called, using the honorific prefix "o,"have been around for centuries in Japan. Made from mochigome (glutinous rice) which is steamed and then pounded to a wonderfully soft texture, they are then shaped according to the occasion. Mochi have a unique elasticity and stickiness that all mochi aficionados adore. Upon grilling or cooking over a heat source, mochi puff up, almost like a toasted marshmallow, and the insides become meltingly soft. Cooked in a liquid, mochi take on a luscious velvety texture. Traditionally eaten as a special food at seasonal celebratory events in Japan, mochi are still very much a part of those occasions today. But it is especially during the New Year's holiday that mochi take center stage, not only as something to eat, but also as part of the Indispensable holiday decoration. But why are mochi considered so important? Let's find out!


It's been said that mochi's roots can be traced back to 2-3 BCE during the Jomon period, the same time as the cultivation of rice was introduced to Japan. Examining Japanese culture from points of view including the folkloric and historic, we can see that rice plants and the rice harvested from them have long held a great deal of importance to the Japanese people. Each year, the rice crop was carefully harvested after enduring all sorts of weather challenges, thanks to the careful attentions of the farmers who labored unstintingly in the fields, from the late winter or early spring through to the fall harvest. It was thought that by eating rice, believed to contain divine energy, the spiritual force inherent in it would contribute to strengthening a person's life force, and in the laboriously produced hand-pounded mochi this spiritual energy was doubled.


The tradition of eating mochi on the New Year's holiday stems from a ceremony called Hagatame no Gi, translated as "Teeth Strengthening Ceremony," that goes all the way back to the court of the Heian period (794 - 1185)when mochi were eaten on the first three days of the new year. The ritual symbolized rebirth in the new year, and it was thought that if one's teeth were considered symbols of longevity was because they were able to stretch and stre-e-e-e-etch without breaking, implying a long, healthy life.


Translated as "mirror" mochi due to the fact that their rounded shape resembles an old-fashioned mirror in which divine spirits were said to dwell, kagami mochi are usually two mochi stacked one atop the other, with a small bitter orange called a daidai traditionally placed on the very top. Kagami mochi first appeared in written literature of the Heian period, during which they were presented as offerings to the divine spirits associated with the rice crop. As years passed, these mochi became gifts offered to the toshigami (ancestral spirits) who pay a visit to each household during the New Year's holiday. They are displayed inside the home from the end of December until January 11, the day on which kagami biraki takes place. Kagami biraki, translated as "opening of the mirror" is when family members all join in breaking apart the mochi, which by now have become partially hardened with several cracks in the surface. Using a mallet or similar tool (knives are never used, as this would symbolizen the inauspicious cutting of ties) the mochi are broken into pieces and then eaten. Consuming the kagami mochi is believed to bring good luck and stamina to those who eat it. The hard pieces of mochi become soft and palatable by grilling, putting them into a soup, etc.


It appears that ozoni (soup containing mochi, as well as other ingredients) was being consumed Way back during the Muromachi period (1337-1573) when it was invariably served at banquets for the warrior class. Since it was considered a highly auspicious food, it was eaten as the first dish of a full-course meal. While it's often said that eating ozoni on the first day of the new year is a tradition based on this custom, it is also said that Hagatame no Gi gave rise to dzoni. With the advent of the Edo period, ozoni, like so many other foods whose consumption was previously restricted to the upper classes, became easily available to the general populace and elebrating the new year with ozoni spread throughout the country. In the Kansai area (south-central region of the main island of Honshu), miso-based broth and round mochi is the usual fare, whereas the north-eastern section of Honshu and areas surrounding Tokyo enjoy soy sauce-based broth and square mochi, but the regional variety is enormous. Ozoni also has some vegetables and chicken or fish added to it, and it is believed that eating this dish will impart the strength of the spirits residing in the mochi to the diner (Holy food supplement, Batman!)


One of the most enjoyable things about mochi, as with regular cooked white rice, is that it pairs well with many foods since it has no strong taste of its own. Popular ways to enjoy mochi are: to heat them until they puff up (using a toaster oven or microwave, or grilling over direct heat), apply a bit of soy sauce and wrap in crispy nori ? this is called isobe maki; in ozoni, with vegetables and some meat, fish or chicken; sprinkled with a mix of Kinako (soybean flour) and sugar for a lightly sweet snack; or, for a dessert mochi, combined with sweet red beans. Nowadays there are a wealth of non-traditional ways to enjoy‘mochi as well? think grilling them along with cheese for a gratin or pizza topping; covering them With a delicious curry sauce; cutting them into small pieces and frying them up golden brown and crispy, then sprinkling with salt for a crunchy snack, or as croutons for soup; pan-frying, then topping with some cooked veggies and black beans! Meat lovers will lick their chops over bacon-wrapped mochi sauteed until crisp. For a sweet treat, how about pan-frying in butter, then topping with honey, maple syrup, or a sprinkle of brown sugar? For a happy medium, you could even sneak a piece of cheese in your isobe maki!

Forihe Japanese, mochi has always been a special occasion food. Eaten not only at New Year's, but also at other seasonal observances such as Setsubun and Kodomo-no-hi, their shape and color are determined by the holiday, demonstrating exactly how flexible the mochi indeed are! Furthermore, the individually wrapped dried mochi that are available year-round can be used as emergency provisions since they have a long shelf life.

Having learned about mochi, it's easy to understand how and why they continue to be such a fundamental and beloved part of Japan's cuisine. Sweet or savory, stretchy-soft or crunchy-crispy, eaten in the traditional ways or inventive new ones, not many foods are as fun and versatile as mochi! How about having a mochi party this year and see how many ways you and your family and friends can enjoy them?