“Gacha-gacha-gacha,” our monstrously heavy, and equally ancient front door rattles on its metal track, quickly followed by the whoosh of the wood and glass shoji inner front door. From the energy burst of the opening and the splash of hand washing, I know it’s Tadaaki, coming in for breakfast after collecting the early morning eggs. As he bangs brass against iron, I hear him hefting the antique stockpot onto our stove. He sparks the flame and the soft hum of the hood fan revs up. Christmas has come and gone, and now shogatsu (Japanese New Year) has arrived. I’m glad it’s Tadaaki’s turn to be in charge because I have no more energy left and burrow deeper into my down covers staving off the inevitable.
Shogatsu is traditionally a family time, though that has been waning in recent years as families disperse to far cities. But our family still follows most of the traditional practices.
Each year on the 29th of December, Tadaaki washes the organic glutinous rice called mochi gome that we will pound the next day. This year Tadaaki plans to pound eight batches of mochi, so has eight pails of rice to wash and soak. Each pail holds three kilos of rice that he has bought from our grower friend, Suka-san. A couple years ago, Tadaaki discovered an antique rice washer upstairs in my collection of flea market finds and was excited to put it to use. The guy I bought it from said it was an ice cream maker. I doubted that, but was attracted by the fine craftsmanship of the old wooden bucket and the low price (sad but typical). Tadaaki soaks the rice overnight and the next morning we kick off shogatsu with a half-day of mochi making (mochi tsuki).
Every year, we do mochi tsuki outside in the garden and by some stroke of luck, that day almost always dawns sunny. Tadaaki wraps a pail of soaked mochi gome in a muslin cloth, puts the muslin bundle into a bamboo-steaming basket with a lid, and places it in an iron pot full of boiling water set over a wood burning fire. The glutinous rice steams for about an hour, then is plucked out of the steamer and dumped into a one meter “square,” hollowed out tree stump (usu) that Tadaaki has soaked over night. Tadaaki’s mother prepares a bucket of cold water next to the usu for dipping in the mallet or hands before touching the sticky rice. First Tadaaki circles the usu, smashing the rice grains with an oversized wooden mallet. Then he wields the mallet high above his head and pounds the mass with a series of distinctively satisfying “thumps.” The untutored tend toward squelchy, weak burps as their mallet lands on the rice. (They probably don’t reach far enough over their head to really get the necessary leverage.) One person pounds and another person dips his hand in the cold water, then folds the rice "dough" over itself in one quick movement in between the mallet contacting with the rice (almost like kneading bread). We invite a dozen or so friends and everyone gets a turn at pounding the mochi. In the past, Tadaaki and his brothers worked up a sweat, but now that the kids are getting bigger, and friends have gotten more skillful, so the mallet gets passed around and mochi tsuki is truly a community event.
As soon as each batch of mochi is pounded, we must work quickly before it cools to an unpliable mass. We smooth the hot mochi into half moon-shaped dumplings called kagami mochi that will be stacked up and offered to the house gods. Tadaaki continues to pinch off misshapen globs of mochi, as we flatten them into rough circles and stretch them around a ball of anko (simmered organic azuki beans smashed with organic sugar and a little sea salt). As more batches of mochi are pounded out, I take my turn at rolling the mochi into a flat rectangle slab. The mochi is much less temperamental than piecrust and just needs a firm, even hand. Tadaaki’s mother used to roll the mochi out on the hall floor that opens up to the garden but in recent years Tadaaki drags out Christopher’s ping-pong table for the operation. Once the mochi is rolled out and well powdered with potato starch, Tadaaki flips the several centimeter thick rectangle slabs onto a wooden board to dry for a couple days before cutting.
During the holidays we have a lot of food. A lot. I deal with the Christmas food, but Tadaaki’s in charge of the Japanese New Year stuff. And every year the mochi squares start to mold before they get stuck in the freezer. Last year, Tadaaki had (what he thought was) the brilliant idea of smoothing the hot mochi into heavy-duty plastic pickle bags to deter the mold that tends to form a few days after the mochi is fully dried. I tried to dissuade him, but he would not be budged. Air-drying creates a delicate semi-dried crust, silky smooth from the potato starch and cool to the touch. The gooey plastic-wrapped version just couldn’t compare. The mochi inside the blue-lettered (unattractive) bags looked unappetizing (and was). And in the end, Tadaaki’s “innovative” method didn’t really solve the problem of storing the mochi.
We ended up with a huge slab of mochi not cut up (so unusable) and impossible to put in the freezer (too unwieldy) and this huge slab of mochi sat in the larder (eventually molding). I tried to reason with my very stubborn husband, but he was puffed up like a little boy about his clever new method. Last year, I let him run with it, despite finally having to throw out the mochi that sat in the larder for a couple months. But at the end of shogatsu this year, I enlisted Christopher’s support. The plastic-encased mochi made me gag and I had had enough. The air-drying process is essential to create a wicked surface against which the pounded rice will push off and puff up when broiled. Without that surface, the broiled mochi dipped in soy sauce, then wrapped in nori is unpleasantly gummy (and Christopher agreed). I think we’re going back to the rolling and air-drying next year. Small victories. Life is all about those small victories.
At lunchtime Tadaaki’s brings out the steaming pot of kenchinjiru. We ladle the soup out into handmade pottery bowls and Tadaaki pops a couple hot globs of mochi into each. The mochi melts to a warm, gooey (but tasty) mass. Definitely an aquired texture.
Tadaaki squeezes off more freshly pounded mochi mounds into the grated purple daikon he is growing this year. Purple. I’ve never seen this variety and am captivated by the vibrant lavender against my antique gray pottery bowl. Colors are one of the things I love best about Japan. Sometimes vibrant, sometimes earthy, but always rich in hue and nuanced in texture. I drizzle organic soy sauce over the daikon before greedily scooping a large spoonful or two onto my plate. But every year, it is the natto mochi I crave. Organic fermented soybeans I have aerated vigorously with chopsticks to promote the characteristic threads of natto “slime,” seasoned with a hot mustard paste and organic soy sauce. The blandly, subtle hot mochi contrasts nicely with the fermented natto, making it slightly addicting (for natto aficionados).
This year some of my oldest friends have come and we fall easily back on familiar topics. I uncork the stopper of Harigaya-san’s homemade lager and pour a glass. Life couldn’t get any better and this is one of my favorites days of the year: no responsibility, the warm winter sun and talking leisurely with friends. Sometimes it’s nice not to be in charge.