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My new New Year's Tradition
A year ago, around Christmas time, I was on the phone with my mother sharing what I was up to. With everything going on—frequent visitors to the temple dropping off flowers and snacks, a New Year's ceremony that is, in short, a major event—what I was most excited to tell my mother about was mochitsuki, or mochi pounding.
Mochitsuki is a common pastime in Hawaii around this time of year, whether you're of Japanese ancestry or not, and at the time I was speaking to my mother, I had just experienced my very first. At mochitsuki, sweet rice that has been soaked for several days is steamed and then pounded with wooden mallets until it turns into a delicious, giant blob of mochi—a more rustic version of what you'd find in a Japanese or Korean grocery, where it can be bought as a delicate, 3-inch wide disc wrapped in crinkly cellophane and stuffed with sweet bean paste or, if you're feeling fancy, a seasonal filling.
Suffice it to say that, over the years, my mother has not expressed much interest in my life at a Japanese Zen temple in Hawaii. So I was very surprised when she responded to my mention of mochitsuki with keen enthusiasm. Before I knew it, she was expounding on how her family used to pound mochi when she was a child living in a rural seaside village in Korea. Every other day of the year, my grandfather was the village doctor and surgeon, in charge of his own small hospital with one working ambulance. But at New Year's, he wielded not a scalpel or stethoscope, but the wooden mochi mallet. As his four children looked on excitedly, he pounded steaming mounds of grainy rice into balls of smooth, pliant mochi that the children would lick off their hands after shaping the one big ball of mochi into many smaller ones.
"Nothing is as delicious as freshly pounded mochi," my mother said and her voice lilted for a moment, reminding me of the fact that she had trained in her younger days to be an opera singer. It is always a sign that the conversation (and my mother) is in a good place when her voice has that lilt, and the sound of it imprinted this conversation about mochi onto my heart.
Nothing is as delicious as freshly pounded mochi. I had just tasted fresh mochi for the first time so now I knew what she meant. Even without the sweet fillings, fresh mochi brings with it an indescribable pleasure. The fresh, chewy mouthfuls makes the days of preparation and the hours of pounding easily worthwhile. The warm memory of fresh mochi can linger for days, if not months or, in my mother's case, decades.
It's hard to explain what's so special about fresh, plain mochi. It is only rice, after all. No fillings, no flavorings, no bells and whistles like you might find in a specialty mochi from LA’s Fugetsu-do or from a brightly lit, glass-walled luxury Minamoto Kitchoan.
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"Sometimes, the wooden mallets hit each other because we have two or three people pounding in one usu. That’s the big wooden bowl you pound the mochi in," I told my mother, boasting. Ours was no backyard mochitsuki. We had multiple people per usu. We pounded 100 lbs!
"And our usu are made of wood, so sometimes you end up with a splinter in the mochi!"
Mentioning the splinters was an act of self deprecation, a knee jerk instinct to downplay and deflect when really, mochitsuki was one of the most special things I'd ever experienced.
Even the rare splinter is, in fact, a reminder of the breadth of communal labor that went into every batch of homemade mochi. The stiff, woody bite of one makes me remember the looks on the supermarket clerks’ faces as I rolled up to the register with two 50-lb bags of sweet rice, enough to fill an entire shopping cart. It also brings to mind the people who wash the rice in the days leading up inside giant gray Rubbermaid trash bins specially altered for this purpose by who knows who in years past. It evokes the generations of people who take their turns on a sunny Saturday morning pounding, turning, and shaping the mochi, after calling to confirm that we’re doing mochi pounding again, because they’ve been coming for decades since back when their kids were still small and can’t wait to return.
Perhaps 50 people in all came together my first mochitsuki to pour out all their energy into the mochi, their backs eventually covered in sweat, their arms limp at their sides, and their brown faces beaming in the sun. All of that labor to leave only with the reward of a paper box of nine fluffy, white discs dusted with corn starch.
"Splinters?!" my mother said, and I expected her to cluck her tongue and say, Oh, yes, the cost of homemade mochi is the occasional splinter in your mouth. What a shame.
But instead, she waxed nostalgic again.
"Oh, the splinters," she said, the opera flowing back into her voice. "The splinters only make the mochi more delicious."
And I agreed. It does.