Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community and Islandwood School
Having never previously participated in making mochi, one of my favorite foods, I've recently had a run of good luck: two mochi-making events (mochitsuki) in two weeks! In my previous post on the annual mochitsuki at Seattle's Nichiren Buddhist Church I talked a little about mochi's religious significance and the reasons that mochitsuki so often take place just before the New Year holidays.
The annual mochitsuki hosted by the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC) generally takes place after New Year's and is resolutely secular--but that's not to say it's without larger significance.
When Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were officially "relocated" in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, Bainbridge Island was where the process began. On March 30, 1942, 227 island residents of Japanese descent were rounded up and packed onto a ferry, bound for an isolated detention camp in Idaho. As the first to be taken from their homes, the Bainbridge Island detainees were among the last to return, but during their long absence they were not forgotten. The editor of the local paper publicy decried the Exclusion Act, and other islanders resisted it in quieter ways. After the war, Bainbridge Island welcomed its detainees back to homes, farms, and business that had been maintained for them.
With its free public mochitsuki, the BIJAC's commemorates the detainees (at least one of whom, a spry 99-year-old, was present for the event) and thanks the larger Bainbridge Island community for its support. With free mochi and performances by Seattle Kokon Taiko, the event is so popular that for the last 3 or 4 years it has taken place at Islandwood School, the island's largest venue (and even so, the parking lot filled in the first hour and cars lined the approach road for blocks).
These days most non-commercial mochi is made by steaming pulverized glutinous rice (mochiko), often in the microwave, or by using a home "mochi maker"--an electric countertop rice cooker that steams the rice, then processes it into a fluffy paste. It's a rare treat to see mochi made the "old-fashioned" way with usu (above left) and kine (above right), a stone bowl and wooden mallet. A stump placed under the usu raises it to a comfortable height and absorbs some of the reverberations. The kine are soaked in water to keep them from getting mired in the sticky mass of rice.
At the BIJAC event pre-soaked rice was cooked in stacked wooden steamer boxes over gas cookers placed at the edge of the lawn. Then, batch by batch, the freshly-steamed rice was dumped out of the steamer box and into the usu (below left). Before vigorous pounding could start, the rice had to be pre-mushed (below right); otherwise everyone within a 10-foot radius would be showered with flying grains.
Then came the main act. The area where the pounding took place had a kind of carnival air, as a crowd gathered to cheer, applaud, and pitch in. The pounding was emceed by a middle-aged guy had a great sense of humor, crack timing, nerves of steel, and hands of asbestos, Shoichi Sugiyami.
After selecting voluteers from the audience, Sugiyama armed them with kine and arranged them around the usu. Becuase keeping a rythym is essential for avoiding kine clashes, he also gave each pounder a number and counted them out as they went, intervening when things got too synchopated.
With the batch well on its way, Sugiyama would rotate in kids from the crowd, some barely taller than the kine:
Finally, one strapping volunteer would be called upon to strong-arm the mochi into submission. As the lone pounder hammered away, Sugiyama screamed instructions while darting in between blows to turn or wet the mochi or pick out stray splinters (like I said: steel and asbestos).
Every time Sugiyama judged a batch to be ready, the crowd errupted in cheers. Then, like a dad tossing a toddler into the air, he would flip the lump of mochi out of the usu and drop into onto a tray (below left).
Inside the Islandwood dining hall, the fresh mochi was deposited on a large work table, where a volunteer divided it among a crowd of waiting children (and a few adults) before showing them how wrap the mochi around small balls of red bean paste (anko). Meanwhile, in the Islandwood kitchen, more volunteers were expertly preparing and rolling more mochi, which was boxed up as two-packs (one plain mochi, one anko-filled; above right) and given away at a central table (free, but donations appreciated). The dining hall quickly filled with dozens of visitors making a picnic of succulent mochi and cups of hot tea.
Fresh mochi can be eaten right away--plain, dipped in soy sauce or kinako (toated soybean powder), or stuffed with anko. It can also be refrigerated or frozen. Hardened mochi can be re-steamed, broiled or toasted; exposed to heat it swells like a marshmallow, developing a gooey center and a crispy, bubbled exterior. The reheated mochi is often added to a savory soup called ozoni, or to a sweet red bean soup called zenzai or shiruko.