Sunday, December 30, 2012

What I learned about mochi while on jury duty

A few weeks ago, I was in the throes of mochi curiosity while spending an otherwise unremarkable day at jury duty. With long hours, wifi and an urge to learn as much as possible about mochi, here is what I knew by the end of the day.


Mochi, or glutinous rice, is a low-yield crop. Because in the olden days farming led to little excess, mochi first entered Japanese culture as a food for the gods. Mochi cakes were used as offerings in Shinto shrines.

Shinto, or “the way of the gods,” is a pantheist religion and one of the few entirely native Japanese traditions (ie, formed without foreign, particularly Chinese, influence). Last summer, a new friend made a very interesting point about Shinto. Although Shinto has a broad array of minor deities, it isn’t an iconographic religion. At my favorite shrine, dedicated to the goddess Inari, you won’t find a single image of the goddess herself. You will instead see images of foxes, the goddess’s messengers, but they are not symbols of devotion. In most shrines, the holiest object – which only the priests are likely to know anything about – is probably a rusted sword or a bronze mirror with some association to the shrine’s patron divinity. Thus, though the Shinto universe is full of gods, you shouldn't expect to see many statues of them on altars.

(Contrarywise, Japanese Buddhism is nontheistic but loaded with iconography. Buddhas here, Buddhas there, and bodhisattvas clumped together by the dozens.)

Many Shinto goddesses (and perhaps some gods? or perhaps not?) keep mirrors as their most sacred objects. The sun goddess Amaterasu once refused to shine, and the other gods used her own reflection as part of a trick to bring her back to the celestial plane. For whatever reason, mirrors are a powerful divine symbol in Shinto.


Because Shinto has its connection with mirrors, and because mochi started its history as a Shinto offering, the most iconic form of mochi is the kagami (mirror) mochi. This is a New Years decoration in which two different-sized discs of mochi are piled atop each other (a larger one on the bottom, a smaller one above), topped with a Satsuma orange.

I plan to make a kagami mochi later today, and will post a picture soon. In the meantime, feel free to do an image search on Google. Because the internet is for cats, my favorite kagami mochi search results are the ones that show a fat cat with a Satsuma orange balanced on its head.

You are likely to see this three-tiered mochi creation in shrines a well as in alcoves or entryways of the homes of families celebrating the New Years in Japan. The idea is to leave the mochi decoration out through the New Years celebration (traditionally, seven days) and then to eat it. I would imagine though that by the seventh day of the New Year, most traditional Japanese households are pretty sick of eating mochi.

As noted, mochi started out as a just-for-gods food. Some time around the Heian Era (Tale of Genji times), rice production had improved to the level that it became possible for the nobility to share in this divine ambrosia. During New Years celebrations, at least. Over time, mochi consumption expanded to the wealthy classes and eventually became accessible to everyone. Also, over time, mochi shifted from an exclusively New Years food to a generally available consumable, usually offered as a major ingredient in sweets.


There are many traditions, rituals and foods associated with the Japanese New Year. Most are Shinto in origin, and quite home-grown. However, the Chinese zodiac plays a huge role in the new year’s iconography (2013 is the year of the snake), and, to throw one more foreign kink in the system, the new year begins on January first. (That is to say, about six weeks before the year of the snake begins on the Chinese calendar.) 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Making mafe because my sister is moving to Africa

My sister has joined the Peace Corps, and is moving to Senegal this March. Besides envy and pride, I also feel a great deal of curiosity. What is Senegal like? I don’t know anything about the country, except that it is on the west coast of Africa and borders the Gambia, which is where the action begins in Alex Haley’s classic Roots.

This curiosity meant that I was fascinated when, a couple months ago, I was looking through a new cookbook and found a tasty-looking Senegalese recipe. The cookbook was Seductions of Rice, and the recipe was peanut stew with lamb, otherwise known as mafe.

This recipe called for about two pounds of lamb shoulder. Conveniently, I have started trying to “move stock” in our freezer, largely by thinking really hard about the fact that I should be pushing the meat more. We have one big annual purchase of red meat, which had arrived recently. The problem was that we were by no means out of meat from last year, and now there is no room for my ice cream in the freezer – let alone mochi, extra loaves of bread and extra space for the “you never know” incidentals that might be better off frozen.

I have not been very good at getting the meat out of the freezer, in large part because I rarely feel like cooking or eating meat. (Hence, the large supply of over-one-year-old meat.) So, once I got it into my head that I wanted to make mafe, I ran with the idea. S— was more than happy to defrost a lamb shoulder.

A nice thing about our mafe recipe is that, despite the English name of “peanut stew with lamb,” it’s a very veggie-heavy dish. Also, it calls for okra. The full veggie complement is pictured below: sweet potato, carrots, tomatoes, okra, onion, hot pepper, along with tomato paste, peanut butter and vegetable stock (hanging out in the juice bottle, left).

Parsnips, a tomatillo and a shallot joined the recipe, though the book didn’t ask them to. We also invited along coriander, cloves, white pepper and, in happy inspiration, a dollop of Marmite mixed in with the peanut butter for additional depth.

We started by browning the lamb, which had been cut into bite-sized pieces. To this we added the alliums, and later the stock and root vegetables. Tomatoes, tomato paste, okra and habanero came next, and all simmered for a while along with the peanut butter and Marmite. The lamb turned quite pink, and was tender and lovely. We accompanied the stew with rice cooked with lemongrass and ginger.

In the end, it was delicious (and fed us for a solid week!). I have no idea how authentic our mafe was, though perhaps I can make it for my sister in a couple of years and ask for her opinion. I briefly considered making it for her when she visits us this spring, en route to Dakar. After thinking over that possibility for about ten seconds, I determined that she would likely prefer very American food during her last domestic days, rather than getting an early start on her two years of eating Senegalese fare.

S— declared the mafe to be a very good use of okra. It would seem he doesn't share my opinion that any stewed okra is delicious. It would also seem that I haven’t made much okra in the past few years, if I am only now learning his opinion of the stuff. The mafe was warm, filling, and habanero-ed up to a high degree of spicy. I hope my sister enjoys the food in Senegal as much as we enjoyed making it ourselves!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mochi: The Solution

Somehow, I heard of the mochi-tsuki-ki a few weeks ago. I don’t remember how this happened. A mochi-tsuki-ki is a mochi making machine, which cooks mochi and then pounds it into putty. At the end, the mochi desirer is left with a nice, hot pile of perfectly pounded mochi, sometimes even cut into individual pieces. This machine is amazing!

(Not only amazing, the mochi-tsuki-ki is also precedent-setting. Apparently, it was the inspiration for Western bread making machines. I don’t know whether one could make bread in a mochi-tsuki-ki, but it would seem that the reverse is quite impossible. The mixing action necessary to make mochi is far beyond the capabilities of a bread machine.)

The conclusion was clear; I needed a mochi maker. It was the absolute only way to bring kosher mochi into the house. There were just a few problems.

Mochi makers are big. They don’t come in different sizes; all mochi makers appear to be ten-cup-capable machines. Mochi makers are more powerful than bread makers, and also at least as big.

They are also pricey – over $300. That is a lot of money for a single-function machine that one might use two or three times a year.

Still, if there’s no other way to make mochi, and if never going to get past my (ten years running) obsession with wagashi, then it seemed that a mochi maker was the only way to move forward.

As I pondered the pros and cons of purchasing a machine that had a whole lot of strong pros and strong cons involved, I continued searching the internet for any other way that I could make mochi. Or even just find mochi that I could bring into our kitchen.

Finally, mochi salvation came in the form of a post called “Homemade mochi the modern way” from the JustHungry blog

This blog has some great Japanese food ideas on it. The author writes food articles for the Japan Times, and on her blog she will often post her articles, followed by an addendum for readers outside of Japan, to discuss how to find or substitute the ingredients that are easily available only in Japan.

The author of JustHungry reports success at making mochi with her KitchenAid, using the dough hook on hot mochi for about 15 minutes. I’d recommend looking at her pictures, since my experience looked about the same (and I couldn’t maintain non-sticky hands, so I kept my camera away).

The outcome was… mochi! Successful, real mochi, made at home with a machine I already have!

It did cool by the end of its 15 minutes of kneading, which made it extremely hard to work with. Next time, I am going to try positioning a wide metal bowl underneath the main bowl of the food processer, and I will fill that bowl with boiling water about halfway through the process. Hopefully, this will leave me with more manageable mochi.

Manageable mochi, manageable mochi. I don’t think that such a creature exists.

My success at mochi made it clear that I need to celebrate an upcoming holiday, New Years Day, in proper Japanese style. That means more mochi coming soon, as well as a slew of other exciting foods.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mochi: The Problem

I have a love/love relationship with wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). Although I could eat these bean-paste-based confections all day, a dozen at a time (despite the impropriety of such an act), they do give me a great deal of trouble. There are two main reasons for this.

1)      They are something of an acquired taste, even among Japanophiles, and as such are not readily available in American supermarkets, restaurants or confectionaries. This is particularly true here in the eastern side of the country, where one can find long-shelf-life, unremarkable daifuku* in most Asian groceries, but not much else. I tend to go a little crazy every time we visit the west coast and have an opportunity to shop at a dedicated Japanese market.

*Daifuku is red bean paste surrounded by a layer of mochi, about the size of a small Clementine.

2)      Because good wagashi lacks preservatives and is made fresh of basic ingredients, the obvious solution to the lack of wagashi in my part of the world is to make my own. Wagashi are, at their core, made up of three basic ingredients (dried beans, sugar, glutinous rice) that are all readily available. Wagashi are also, unfortunately, intensely labor intensive and require quite a lot of skill (as well as time) to make well.

There are a number of shortcut materials out there to make wagashi easier to produce. Canned bean paste allows one to start making wagashi when the urge strikes, instead of starting the night before with soaking beans, and then spending hours at or near the stove the next day, in order to produce the most basic building block of the food genre. Pre-made mochi saves one from I-don’t-even-know-how-much-work, because mochi making is a lengthy, drawn-out process that, in traditional Japanese practice, involves a giant mallet and a gathering of the entire neighborhood.

I am sure that these shortcut materials are great, but there is a problem with them all. We can’t bring them into our kitchen. We keep a kosher kitchen, which means that any goods produced from many ingredients in a factory setting require special certification if we are going to cook with them. While we are blessed with a wide variety of kosher-certified ingredients, mochi ain’t one of ’em.

Mochi rice, or glutinous rice (a gluten-free product, despite its name) comes from a specific, low-yield rice plant. To make mochi, one must:
·         soak mochi rice overnight
·         steam the rice for about an hour
·         keep the rice hot while pounding it hard, continuously, for at least 15 minutes
·         using corn starch, somehow take the stickiest product known to mankind and cut it into reasonably-sized pieces. Coat these with more corn starch. Somehow do this while the product is still too hot to handle, because if you wait until it has cooled it will simply not comply with any part of this process.

I tried making a batch of mochi a few months ago, and pounded away with a mortar and pestle. After I had pounded for as long as I could possibly pound, I was left with a cold, unmanageable, not-very-pounded-up lump of stuck-together rice pieces. I gave up on ever making mochi, and decided that my rice-based wagashi would be limited to ohagi.*

*Ohagi, which is associated with the autumn equinox and the visiting of the family gravesite in Japan, is a more rustic wagashi than most. The outside is a coarse bean paste, surrounding a minimally pounded mochi center that, conveniently, looked a lot like my unsuccessful attempt to make mochi.