The Yomiuri ShimbunThis series discusses the present and future of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. This installment features rice, an indispensable part of washoku.
When the New Year rolls around, many homes in Japan display traditional decorations featuring mochi and many people eat zoni soup containing mochi, vegetables and other ingredients. While mochi remains closely connected to traditional events, the sticky delicacy is also undergoing changes to keep up with the times.
On Nov. 30, a symposium was held in Nagoya to showcase Aichi-mochi 126, a variety of glutinous rice for which development has been led by the Aichi prefectural government. Mochi typically hardens as time passes, so when it is processed for wagashi traditional confectionery and other products, sugar and other ingredients are mixed in to maintain its softness.
The prefectural government started developing Aichi-mochi 126 in fiscal 2010 because it believed that if mochi could retain its original flavor while also staying soft, even without adding anything extra, such a product would enjoy business opportunities.
“Mochi made from this rice will stay soft for longer than others,” a prefectural government official involved in the mochi project said at the symposium.
Visitors to the symposium sampled shiratama rice-flour dumplings made with the special rice. “They feel softer than regular shiratama,” one person said, while another commented, “It’s amazing that they stay soft.”
There are two types of rice: uruchimai, which is normally eaten as the main part of a meal, and mochigome, a glutinous kind pounded to make mochi, or steamed with beans and other ingredients.
According to Fukuyama University Prof. Naoyoshi Inouchi, the softness of mochi is determined by a starch called amylopectin, in which glucose units are lined up like branches, and when moisture and heat are applied, these branches open up, resulting in soft mochi. When the temperature drops, the branches close up and join together again, making the mochi firm.
Aichi-mochi 126, on the other hand, stands apart from other mochigome because its amylopectin branches are shorter, making it harder for them to join up and, therefore, for the mochi to harden.
Full-scale cultivation of this glutinous rice is scheduled to begin this year.
According to a public interest incorporated association to assist the stable supply of rice, various varieties of mochigome are cultivated nationwide. However, the overall production amount of glutinous rice is smaller than uruchimai, which means the mix of main varieties on the market can drastically change when a new one makes its debut. In recent years, about 200,000 tons of mochigome have gone through grading assessments each year.
The volume of mochi purchased is on a downward trend. According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s family income and expenditure surveys, households with two or more people bought an average of 2,812 grams of mochi in 2000, but this figure had dropped to 2,423 grams in 2017. It appears this decline is due to fewer opportunities to eat mochi at celebrations and other events. Consumption of mochi is heavily tilted toward the New Year period.
Mochi makers are developing various products in an effort to turn this situation around.
In October, Echigo Seika Co., which is based in Niigata Prefecture, started selling sets containing slices of mochi along with either kinako soybean flour or anko red bean paste, as part of efforts to let consumers enjoy mochi more easily.
Sato Foods Co., another maker in the same prefecture, put stick-shaped mochi on the market in 2014, suggesting new ways of eating mochi such as by wrapping it in ham or cheese or dipping it in curry.
When mochi is sold in small squares and other shapes, the package usually contains one kilogram, but makers have released smaller packages containing less mochi for single-person households.
“Mochi is quite filling and can be eaten just by heating it up,” said Ryoko Irie, who heads Onjakukai, a group that researches Japanese cuisine. “Adding mochi to soup is a simple way to make breakfast. For the sake of preserving Japan’s traditional food culture, I hope people will eat it at occasions other than just the New Year holidays.”
New Year treat for centuries
What does mochi mean to Japanese people? “Mochi originally was a food eaten on special occasions such as festivals,” Kokugakuin University Prof. Takanori Shintani said. “For Japanese people, it was inseparable from celebrations.”
Rice was regarded as a source of life, so mochi was a symbol of life.
The culture of eating mochi for the New Year celebrations started in the Heian period (late eighth to late 12th century) at the latest. “The Tale of Genji” mentions a New Year event at the time, which features kagamimochi, a decoration using round mochi.
In later years, mochi became a food eaten for the Doll Festival, the Boys’ Festival and other events, and was also featured more often at celebratory occasions. “Now that various events are no longer held, I think mochi has become a food eaten only at the New Year,” Shintani said.
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