Seattle Nichiren Buddhist Church, December 2009
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...
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.
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.