Sunday 12 January 2020

Welcoming the New Year with Sticky Rice Cakes

Click for a snippet of all the Kōhaku songs
Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) - Happy New year - to one and all! In the last few days there have been a lot of programmes looking back on 2019: according to a poll of Yomiuri readers, the top domestic news stories last year were (1) the new emperor and start of the Reiwa era (covered here) (2) the Japanese rugby team reaching the last eight of the world cup (here) (3) mass killing at Kyoto Animation studios in July (4) October 1st consumption tax raise to 10% and (5) typhoons hitting eastern Japan in September through October. Another traditional way to look back over the year is the annual 4.5 hour New Year's Eve Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦) or "Red and White Song Contest" in which the top artists of the year split into teams of red (women) and white (men) and vie for the votes of audience and judges. American rock band KISS featured in a special one-off performance with legendary X-Japan drummer Yoshiki who was heavily influenced by the group, one of the few foreign bands to appear (together with Korean band TWICE).

Dango mochi balls
New Year wouldn't be complete in Japan without mochi (餅) or sticky rice cakes which take many forms. While the glutinous rice is eaten year-round - small round mochi dumplings (dango=団子) on a stick (pictured) are a popular snack - it is an especially common New Year food and decoration. The picture right shows a typical shop-bought mochi decoration made of plastic with a small mochi inside, known as kagami-mochi (鏡餅)
Disney themed kagami-mochi for sale
The name kagami-mochi comes from its shape: the copper mirrors or kagami used in the Muromachi period were round like a mochi. The kagami-mochi is thus two round lumps of rice cake (mochi) with the smaller one placed on top of the bigger one (representing the past year and the year to come). It is topped with a tangerine (this time featuring a "lucky" leaf); the tangerine is typically referred to as a daidai which is actually the colour orange in native Japanese (with the repetition of the syllables supposedly pointing to the continuation of generations). The decoration is usually opened, cut, and eaten on January 11th, a practice known as kagami-biraki (鏡開き) or opening. People don't wait until the 11th to eat mochi though - it is a staple in various New Year dishes (known collectively as osechi-ryōri=おせち料理), especially ozōni, a soup containing vegetables and mochi commonly eaten on New Year's Day (pictured below). As the picture shows, mochi comes in square (otoko=man) and round (onna=woman) shapes and the ingredients and soup base itself vary dramatically by region.

Today some people still make mochi themselves in a process which requires the glutinous rice to be strenuously kneaded. Traditionally, this is done in a wooden or stone mortar (usu) with a heavy wooden mallet in a process known as mochitsuki which is often carried out as a community or neighbourhood event. Pounding the mochi two hundred or so times gives it a smooth, shiny and whiter appearance, though today this task it increasingly done in a machine like a bread-maker. However it is prepared, the mochi is quite delicious when cooked: the pictures below show rectangular slices of mochi being ❶ fried on a hot plate ❷ until both sides are brown, ❸ soaked in soy sauce, and ❹ wrapped in seaweed ready to be eaten. This way of eating wrapped in seaweed is called isobe-mochi (or isobe-yaki), with isobe meaning seashore or beach. Be careful though - every year in Japan a number of elderly people die due to asphyxiation after getting mochi stuck in their throat...