Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mochitsuki I: Seattle Nichiren Buddhist Church

Seattle Nichiren Buddhist Church, December 2009

A paste made from steamed glutinous rice, mochi is one of the confectionery world's most adept shapeshifters. It can be rock-hard and angular (kirimochi) or pillow-soft and spherical (marumochi); fish-belly white or brightly colored; plain or flavored; raw or roasted; stuffed with bean jam, fruit, chocolate, or ice cream. Mochi can even mean different things in different contexts; it is equally appropriate as a offering to the gods or as an afternoon snack . In fact, it's only my own bias that causes me to claim it as a "sweet" at all--though made with so-called "sweet" rice, plain mochi has a neutral flavor that lends itself just as well to savory applications.

While mochi is popular year-round, it is perhaps most prominent during Japanese New Year celebrations. Mochi is a key component in
osechi ryori, a selection of foods customarily eaten over the New Year holiday in order to ensure health and prosperity in the coming year. This mochi is usually made towards the end of December so that it will be ready for the holidays.

The Japanese expression for mochi-making,
mochitsuki, is both an activity and an event. In many places, mochitsuki is a communal undertaking that kicks off the holidays, bringing families and neighbors together to share in the work of preparing for the New Year. The members of Seattle's historic Nichiren Buddhist Church have been gathering for mochitsuki for just about as long as any of them can remember. Established in 1916, the Nichiren Church moved to its current home on South Weller in the spring of 1929. For two days every December, mochitsuki takes over the church's industrial kitchen and large dining hall.

On the first day, sacks full of mochigome (sweet glutinous rice; above, left) are washed and placed in buckets to soak overnight. The next day the rice is cooked, one batch at a time, in wooden steamer boxes (above, right) until soft and translucent.

Traditionally the rice is turned out into a large stone mortar, or usu, then pounded into paste using a wooden mallet, or kine. After years of old-fashioned mochitsuki weakened the floor of the church, the Nichren congregation switched to the electric mochi makers that they use today, contraptions rather like a sausage grinder, driven by a small motor and a rubber belt.

As the machine whirs, two workers use sticks to force cooked rice into the maw of the grinder, which extrudes fresh mochi onto a tray dusted with katakuriko potato starch:

Then the still-steaming mochi is transferred into the funnel of small plastic hand-crank mill; as the mochi emerges from a nozzle on the side, the operator swings a small guillotine at regular intervals, cutting the mochi into equal pieces.

An assistant passes these pieces down the table to more volunteers, who wait at workstations consisting of a well-dusted wooden board and a small bowl of additional katakuriko (fresh mochi is incredibly sticky!).

They roll the mochi between their palms until, satisfied with the shape, they set the finished marumochi onto a plastic tray.

Thanks to the stop-and-start rhythm of the process, between frantic bouts of mochi-shaping there's plenty of time for the volunteers to talk, joke, and show off their flour-sack aprons...

The finished mochi are collected and carefully laid out by the dozen to cool on long paper-lined tables, before being packed in variety of waiting containers.

While many of these mochi will go home with mochitsuki volunteers, the event is also a fundraiser for Nichiren; the volunteers fill orders placed by other congregtions, businesses, and individuals. Orders for 2009 totalled more than 200 dozen pieces.

Some of the mochi was also kept aside to make kagami mochi, a form that is particularly important at New Year. Kagami mochi is made up of two flattened balls, the smaller one stacked on top of the larger. The name means "mirror mochi" and refers to the sacred mirrors associated with Shinto and Buddhist deities. Over the holiday, these and other symbolic offerings are displayed on home shrines and altars.

Akiko-san is Nichiren's designated kagami mochi maker; while kagami mochi are often made by priests, everyone, Reverend Cedarman included, says that Akiko-san has a special knack. Using paper templates, she carefully shaped large lumps of fresh mochi ("Hot, hot, hot!") into near-perfect discs.

Although simliar to shaping the little marumochi, making kagami mochi is much more difficult. Because these mochi are altar offerings, it is essential that they look as good as possible. The balls have to be in correct proportion to one another; they must be circular and not too fat or too flat. In order to make the surface of the mochi smooth and shiny, Akiko-san repeatedly stretched the top of the ball, pulling the excess down and tucking it underneath.

And the work isn't done even when size, shape, and surface are satisfactory; because hot mochi is a slow moving liquid, Akiko-san had to keep nudging and checking each finished shape until it cooled enough to hold its form. She laughed at my taking such a long video, pointing out that she was merely doing the same thing over and over--but it was exactly that repetetiveness--the patience, the attention to minute detail--that I found so hypnotic.

Many of the marumochi will be eaten in ozoni soup, the traditional breakfast on New Year's Day. Some will be roasted, dipped in sweetened soy sauce, and dusted with kinako soy flour--another auspicious treat. Reverend Cedarman will tend the kagami mochi on the Nichiren altars by wiping them with sake; early in the new year he will shatter the discs in a ceremony called kagami biraki.

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