Friday, January 15, 2010

Making Mochi at Azuma

At Azuma Yochien (kindergarten) I had expected the event to some kind of `fathers day` with all the daddies helping make Mochi (new year spl. rice cakes), for the kids. I was expecting big, boisterous crowds but when I reached there, all was calm and quiet - the kids, in caps and face-masks, were getting ready for lunch-time and there was no sign of any Mochi anywhere.

I must have been lingering around looking lost when a staff-member spotted me and led me to the principal`s room where there were four (only!) other dads sipping green-tea and waiting for the action to begin.

It took me a while to get a hang of things but the whole process was something as follows -- rice was being cooked on two stoves outside and two large mortars (usu, made of solid, heavy wood) and mallets (kine) of assorted sizes were readied on the side. First we carried the mortars out and placed them on two straw mats in the playground. A sticky block of cooked Mochi rice was then placed on the wet mortars.

For a while this rice was just kneaded using the mallets by two of us just pushing it down as we walked around. And then, after the rice had reached a certain consistency, the pounding started with two of us banging away alternately while a third man gingerly scooped the rice paste, which was getting smoother and stickier until it was one steaming hot, silky white glob.

Once the Mochi was ready it was the turn for the kids to try their hand at it using miniature mallets while a photographer recorded the event for posterity. Of the two groups in the kindergarten, the juniors were a lot more enthusiastic - standing around in a circle chanting `Gambaare! Gambaare!`. The seniors (6 year-old`s), on the other hand, had a bored, been-there-done-that attitude about the whole thing, and just chatted around until it was time for them to return to their class.

The whole process was good fun - for the first 30 minutes. The heavy wooden mallet had a nice feel to it and was good to see the sticky rice squelching under each blow and bits of it splattering on my specs and face.Then, as the first round went into the second, third and the fourth, the mallet became heavier and too slippery to hold with one hand; my right arm started hurting, bits of skin on my palm tore away leaving a bloody mess and my fingers just refused to budge. Thankfully, the fifth was the last round and I was happy to finally clean my hands under stinging, ice-cold tap water, and recuperate.

This was my second tryst with Mochi-making this winter. The first one was with the Michikawa`s (my host-family) at Mimori village near Mt.Tsukuba. At the village we had used an outdoor firewood-stove to cook the rice but instead of heavy, wooden usu-kine, we had used a kneading machine. Coming to think of it, it was so much more convenient - the only muscle-work required was for chopping the firewood and for cleaning the machine after each round!

The Michikawa`s had offered the first round of `maru-mochi`s` (round mochi`s) to the family altar inside the house; the second one to the dieties residing in miniature shrines under a big tree outside, and the third one was for friends and family. The last set was distributed in two forms - sweet lumps dunked in brown sugar-bean powder (delicious!) and the second with a pungent radish paste.

It was a great experience - but I`m glad Mochi is made only once a year! :)



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