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Goin’ Japanesque!

Japanese New Year’s Preparation: How To Mochi-Tsuki to Make Delicious Rice Cakes

Making mochi rice cakes using a pestle and mortar was an indispensable event in Japan decades ago at the time of celebrations and festivals or in order to prepare “kagami-mochi” to offer to gods at the New Year. But few families have kept the tradition of regularly making mochi these days. This is because since the advent of household electric mochi makers in the 1970s, many families stopped pounding mochi themselves and left it to the machines and increasingly more families resorted to buying mochi.

This time I am delivering a report on how to make mochi by the traditional Japanese method and how the traditional method is surviving today despite its diminished use.


1. Washing Mochi Rice

Writer’s Photo, Rice before cooking: the left is regular Japanese rice and the right, mochi rice.

Mochi rice cakes are made from mochi rice (aka glutinous rice or sticky rice) among various kinds of rice. While regular Japanese rice, the kind used as a staple of Japanese meals, looks translucent before being cooked, mochi rice is white and not transparent. This is the main difference in appearance between the two. The standard serving size of mochi rice is 150 gram per person, and 3 kilogram of mochi rice is usually used in a mortar each time.

In Japanese language the action of washing rice is expressed as “togu (sharpen)”, and rice germs and other parts left by threshing and polishing are washed off in this process. Then rice is soaked in water to allow the rice to absorb the water. Regular Japanese rice is left in the same amount of water for about 1 hour before cooking, whereas mochi rice is soaked in water twice the amount of the rice for over 5 hours. 

Cooking regular rice: Regular Japanese rice (translucent) is soaked in the same volume of water for about 1 hour.
To make mochi: Mochi rice (white and not transparent) is soaked in double the volume of water for at least 5 hours.


2. Steaming Mochi Rice

Writer’s Photo

When regular Japanese rice is cooked for a meal, it is usually combined with the same amount of water in a pot or rice cooker and boiled until the water disappears. When mochi is to be made, mochi rice which has been soaked in water in the previous stage is taken out by a colander, straining off the water well. Mochi rice is then wrapped in a dish towel and steamed.

In this photo water is boiled in a caldron over old-fashioned wood fire and mochi rice is steamed in a wooden steamer placed on top. It takes about 30 minutes. Mochi rice can be steamed in a stainless-steal or aluminum steamer with gas fire or it can be cooked in a rice cooker’s mochi rice cooking mode. Mochi rice should be steamed to the same firmness as sekihan rice (sticky rice with red azuki beans) or slightly firmer for a better result.


3. Preparation of Pestle and Mortar

Writer’s Photo

Mortars used for pounding mochi can be either made of wood or stone.

As a wooden mortar and pestle can crack at the impact of pounding when they are dry, please don’t forget to soak them in water overnight like you let rice soak up water.

When the time of mochi-tsuki is near, warm water is poured into the mortar to warm it up.


4. Pounding Mochi Rice

Writer’s Photo

When steaming is over, mochi rice wrapped in the dish towel is removed from the steamer and placed in the mortar. The tip of the pestle is moistened well with water, and grains of mochi rice are mashed with it. When the rice becomes glutinous and sticks together as one large blob, it is high time to start pounding.

Sounds of pounding the mochi echo “pettan pettan” to the Japanese ears. When mochi rice becomes glutinous, it sticks to the mortar and pestle, thus it is essential to wet them with water. This process is called “temizu (hand water)”. Touching the surface of mochi by a wet hand to lightly moisten it is sufficient. If too much water is added, pounding may become easier but negative effects will also result; mochi rice cakes can easily become hard after forming and they are more likely to get moldy.

Writer’s Photo

A good way to envision how to do mochi-tsuki is not pounding with brute force but letting the pestle fall naturally by taking advantage of its weight. The person in charge of wetting mochi should flip it over after every few poundings. Some people maintain this role is harder than pounding, as the person needs to coordinate timing with the partner pounding with the pestle.

Writer’s Photo

Kindergarteners are trying mochi-tsuki for the first time, using a pestle for small children. If small children are participating in mochi-tsuki, please note that adults should pound mochi beforehand until it is almost done. Otherwise the mochi gets cold and shaping it will not go well.

Nowadays mochi-tsuki in Japan has transformed itself from annual household events to community events held by local associations and children’s associations or as a learning experience at kindergartens and elementary schools, but traditions are still handed down.


5. Shaping Mochi

Freshly-pounded mochi is hot to the point of burning your skin. It is then put on a dusted board with starch and formed into small round shapes. Mochi becomes stiff when it cools down, and it will be reheated by grilling, boiling or frying before eating.


6. Itadakimasu (Let’s Eat)!

Writer’s Photo

Freshly-pounded mochi is soft and it stretches well when being pulled. Look at the children biting into mochi, as it is so delicious everyone is smiling. Typically in Japan mochi is eaten with anko sweet bean jam, toasted soybean flour, grated daikon radish or seaweed.

If you participate in festivals in Japan, I bet you can get a chance to eat freshly made mochi. If you do, don’t miss the chance to give it a try!

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About the author

I have worked in a museum as a curator and I specialize is in craft products. I have grown up in the city, but now enjoy the country life. From an environment rich in nature, I will report to you on seasonal events and customs of Japan, foods and how to make them. I look forward to introducing special moments in Japan that you will not see in ordinary guidebooks.

View all articles by Kunie