|O-zoni with shiitake, daikon, tea-infused tofu, nameko mushrooms,, kabocha squash|
When the Japanese look at a full moon, they see a rabbit pounding mochi, or sticky rice cakes. Actually, we call it o-mochi – honorable rice cakes. There’s a whole ritual surrounding the making of mochi, and my children, despite growing up in America, were lucky enough to witness it every year at the Japanese-bilingual school in San Francisco they attended. To the beat of taiko drums, naked men in loincloths – seriously – dance around a wooden vat pounding freshly cooked mochi rice with mallets. The pounding is rhythmical, and eventually, the rice turns into a sticky, stretchy and smooth mass. These mochi warriors bare their skin in the midst of winter in order to ensure a prosperous New Year. The freshly made mochi can be eaten right away dipped in roasted soybean flour (kinako) or soy sauce, then wrapped in nori, or allowed to dry to be cut and cooked another time. Children in Japan look forward to eating o-mochi like American kids look forward to Christmas cookies or Halloween candy. I remember stuffing myself eating o-mochi, and was tickled to see my son gorging on it as a child as well. Would we have as much childhood obesity in this country if the idea of a treat was mochi instead of ice cream?
Of course, you can make fresh mochi at home now with a mochi-maker without even taking off your clothes. Or you can just buy it from an Asian grocery or natural food store. The Asian variety is always made with white rice, while the kind in the natural food store is made from brown rice and is not as smooth in texture. I actually love the rustic, chewy consistency of brown rice mochi, and made my New Year’s soup (ozoni) with that.
Of the many special New Year’s dishes served in Japan, the most popular and central is o-zoni, a soup or stew featuring o-mochi. Throughout Japan, there are many varieties, from the sweet, adzuki-bean base in Tottori to light, vegetable based ones in Kyoto. The recipe I offer here is based on the one I grew up with in the Tokyo area where chicken stock is typically used. It’s a light, savory and totally satisfying way to start your day.
6 cups vegetarian chicken-flavored stock
1/4 cup sake
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
12 fresh shiitake mushrooms, hatch mark made on top for decorative purpose
1/2 small kabocha squash, seeds removed, sliced thinly
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced daikon
8 ounces nameko or maitake mushrooms, optional
1 bunch kale or spinach, lightly steamed or blanched
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
1 – 3 pounds mochi (depending on how much you want to eat), cut into rectangles (a 12-ounce package of mochi from the natural food store can be cut into 6 pieces)
Combine the stock sake, soy sauce and salt in a large pot. Bring to a boil and simmer on low heat for 5 minutes. Add the shiitake, mushrooms, kabocha squash and daikon, and simmer for another 5 minutes until tender. Turn off the heat. Cook the mochi as directed in the photo caption below. To serve, put 1 or 2 pieces of cooked mochi in a bowl, then pour the soup on top. Add some of the pre-cooked kale or spinach, sprinkle with green onions, and eat! Have a happy, prosperous and healthy New Year!