The crowd parts to make way for the old man with the steaming tray of sticky rice and hands it to two young men holding massive wooden kine mallets. They throw the rice into the wooden usu mill and get to work, pounding the rice into a glutinous paste amongst a multitude of grunts and shouts. Still steaming, they slam it onto a tray and whisk it inside to be moulded into delicious mochi. The Mochitsuki had begun!
Wandering around a city with no set destination can sometimes lead to unexpected discoveries, especially if you skip the public transport and set out on foot. Not only do you get to enjoy some fresh air and hopefully sunshine, but you might also stumble across something you’d never have expected to see. We recently spent some time in the beautiful city of Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, Japan, which sits less that 5km from an incredibly beautiful (not to mention highly active) volcano called Sakurajima. Its streets are filled with quirky shops from fruit and vegetable sellers to second hand stores, and of course, many many hair salons as seems to be the thing in Japan.
One day while wandering about we stumbled across a trendy organic produce shop on one of our many wanders, right around the corner from our host family’s apartment, selling fresh organic vegetables, small goods and cheeses, organic teas and a few luxuries we’d been missing from home (granola: score!). Admiring the goods while simultaneously keeping our wallets firmly closed was a battle just barely won. We thought it best to make a reluctant but quick exit before the temptation became too much.
Outside we saw an old mochi pestle (usu) pushed up against the wall of the shop. We paused to take a few quick photos, thinking it might just be a decorative piece, then slowly became aware of the crowd gathering around us. Out came the rice and the massive wooden kine hammers as the staff got to work making fresh organic mochi. Who knew taking a photo of an old mochi mill outside a quirky shop would lead to us witnessing the traditional preparation of one of our favourite Japanese treats!
While the recipe for mochi is quite simple, just cooked sticky rice and lots of water, it quickly became apparent that preparing it the traditional way takes a lot of effort. The guys operating the usu worked in tandem with the ease of long years of practice. While one used the heavy wooden kine to pound the rice, the other added water and rotated the thickening mixture, as it gradually transformed from individual grains into a sticky, glutinous ball.
From there the huge ball of mochi was taken inside to be whittled down into the individual cakes. A new team of enthusiastic mochi lovers gathered around the table to assist. The mochi was pinched off into portions then made its way from person to person to be kneaded, rolled, polished into a perfect shape, coated in flour and neatly packaged into containers.
Thankfully many hands make light work and in less than 10 minutes we got our mitts on some freshly prepared and deliciously chewy organic mochi.
Mochi is a versatile little treat and we’ve found many types on our wanders across Japan. Sweet-tooths especially will fall in love with the sweet red bean filled version, it can be found everywhere from specialty sweet shops to the local supermarkets or convenience stores. We’ve also seen them coated in matcha (green tea) powder, kinako (toasted soy bean) powder, or mixed with yomogi (mugwort) herb. These are a little too bitter for our tastes but are clearly quite popular with the local crowds.
Plain mochi can be enjoyed as is, but for something devilishly good, coat it in butter and gently fry in a pan on both sides for a few minutes. Add a pinch of salt over the top and serve hot – we guarantee there will be no turning back after this. It somehow tastes like buttered popcorn with a crunchy exterior and soft chewy centre. Yum yum!
- Glutinous sticky rice
- Potato or rice starch
- Red bean paste
- Soy bean powder
- Matcha powder
- Coarsly process the rice in a food processor or spice grinder. Soak for one hour and then drain.
- Cook the rice in a steamer or rice cooker until soft. Allow to rest for 5 minutes.
- Wet your hands and transfer the cooked rice into a mortar and pestle. Pound the rice for 10 minutes or so, adding small amounts of water as required so that the rice does not stick to the sides. Essentially the rice should remain moist but not too wet while you do this. Depending on how much rice you have cooked, you may need to do small portions at a time. The rice should eventually form into a singular, sticky mass.
- Sprinkle rice flour or potato starch on a clean flat work surface. Transfer the mochi rice onto the surface (you may need to wet your hands here to avoid them sticking too much). Add more flour/starch over the top and begin to knead (using dry hands this time) until the mochi is no longer as sticky.
- Divide the rice into smaller portions and continue to knead until smooth, adding more flour/starch as needed. The mochi can now be eaten as is, or you can add your favourite filling.
To fill the mochi
- Flatten mochi portions and add filling to the centre. Our favourite is red bean paste which you can buy from supermarkets or Asian grocery stores. Gather the outside of the mochi portions to form a ball shape and roll until forming a ball with the filling hidden inside.
To toast the mochi
- Heat a fry pan with a small amount of butter. Add plain mochi and fry for a few minutes until the outsides are golden brown. Sprinkle a small amount of salt or garlic salt until seasoned to taste.