Munching on Comforting, Chewy Mochi


I like Christmastime and all, but the thing I look forward to the most is the week after. That’s when our family kicks into gear for a New Year’s Day celebration.

My grandma and I go on a big shopping trip to the wonder of an Asian grocery store that is Uwajimaya in Seattle, buying all the little foodstuffs we’ll eat on New Year’s Day to celebrate our Japanese heritage and be all together as a family again. I’ll blog more about that later.

This week also begins the glut of gooey goodness: mochi. For those who’ve never had the stuff, it’s rice that’s been mushed and mashed into a glutinous mass, made into patties and either eaten plain or formed into a variety of little goodies.

When I was a kid, my grandma and other Japanese ladies from around the peninsula would get together a few days before New Year’s and sit around someone’s kitchen.

They’d wait for a machine to grind and mix up the mochi rice, and when it was done, the hot steaming, glutinous blob would be plopped on a floured spot and, as if they had no feeling in their hands at all, they’d grab little blobs and form them into row upon row of little patties. Other times, grandma just rolls it out and cuts it into squares that you can eat right away or freeze.

Now, some of you may be thinking “glutinous blob” just doesn’t sound tasty. OK, so maybe that’s not the best-sounding description, but it’s pretty accurate. It’s like eating rice that’s a tad bit sweeter, way stickier and chewy.

And there are about a hundred different ways to eat it. You can add seasonings to the dough, fry it, plop it in tea, or boil it in miso soup, fill it with sweet beans or … there’s a lot.

But my favorite is the plain, easy way my grandma cooks it up for us. She takes out a little broiler rack, and places it upside down over a stovetop burner (which I’m sure is dangerous, but we haven’t burned down the house yet.) She place sa couple little squares of mochi on top of the stove and heats it up until the outside crisps and the inside gets so warm and gooey it almost bursts out. You then dip the hot, little thing in soy sauce or a mix of soy sauce and sugar

Maybe it’s the combination of salty-sweet-chewy that makes this the perfect winter comfort food, but I suspect a big part of it for me is that time sitting in grandma’s kitchen, waiting for the mochi to cook over the stove and sharing a few chewy bites with grandma.

Don’t think that having a Japanese grandma is the only way to get mochi.

On Bainbridge Island and in other Japanese-American communities, they hold a more traditional mochi-making ceremony, in which a couple of strong, energetic people with big, wooden mallets pound away at steamed mochi rice on a huge stone mortar. That event was postponed this year and will take place Jan. 18 at IslandWood.