Magazine article Sunset

Mad about Mochi: Celebrate the Japanese New Year with a Traditional Treat

Magazine article Sunset

Mad about Mochi: Celebrate the Japanese New Year with a Traditional Treat

Article excerpt

It's chewy, it's gooey, and it looks about as appealing as library paste. But around New Year's Day, when people are lined up impatiently to get it at Benkyodo Company in San Francisco's Japantown, you'd think that mochi was worth its weight in gold. This pounded-rice dough is an integral part of Japanese New Year, which is celebrated January 1 to 3.

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What happens to all this mochi? It can be eaten in a variety of ways, including a traditional New Year's soup called ozoni, which features chunks of mochi. It's also crucial to the okasane, a pyramid of tangerine-decorated mochi rounds that represents (take your pick) purity, abundance, or good luck or is used as an offering that's placed in a family shrine. The fact is, some Japanese Americans, including my mother, don't remember what mochi signifies--just as all those people in Times Square on New Year's Eve don't really know why they're singing the Scottish folk song "Auld Lang Syne" while waiting for a ball to drop.

The real point of these rituals, I think, is togetherness--a unity of common hopes and dreams ushering in a new year. That's how I feel when I join the mochi-loving fraternity picking up orders at Benkyodo. The pastry shop has been a fixture in Japantown since 1906. Most of the year, folks stop by for hot tea and a dozen manju (sweet bean-filled pastries usually made with mochiko, a rice flour). The week after Christmas, manju production stops while owners and brothers Bobby and Ricky Okamura use a machine to pound out 800 pounds of mochi a day. …

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