For the past two years my friends and I have celebrated the new year by going to the Bainbridge Island Mochi Festival. The festival is put on by the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC), which uses the event as both a way to celebrate mochi tsuki, meaning the process of pounding sweet rice into patties, and to inform fellow islanders and out-of-town visitors of their history.
Bainbridge Island is a small, forested island in the middle of the Puget Sound, just a short ferry ride away from Seattle. Ever since the late nineteenth century, the island has had a significant Japanese-American community, who played a crucial role in the development of the island's strawberry farming industry. Right before WWII, all the strawberry farms were owned by Issei (first generation Japanese) and were the island's largest industry. However, during WWII the Japanese-American community on Bainbridge was forced to evacuate, and sent to the Manzanar internment camp in California. One of my favorite novels is about this period in Bainbridge's history, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.
While the Mochi Festival is a time to reflect on the dark history of the island, it is first and foremost a time to have fun and learn about mochi tsuki. Mochi is one of the traditional foods eaten for the Japanese New Year celebration. Since mochi is pounded rice, in can be eaten many different ways. Most people are familiar with mochi surrounding icecream or cut into cubes to sprinkle on top of frozen yogurt. The traditional form mochi takes for New Year's day, however, is mochi kagami, meaning "mirror mochi". The mochi is made into two circular disks, one on top of the other, and topped with a bitter fruit, like an orange.
At the Bainbridge Island Mochi Festival the long process of making mochi, from beginning to end, took place. First, the sweet rice was steamed in wooden boxes over an outdoor fire. Once it was sticky, it was quickly transferred to a stone usu, or mortar. One of the BIJAC members then chose three volunteers to pound the rice. As much as I tried to be picked, the BIJAC member always chose three big, strong-looking men. These men were handed kines (wooden mallets) and given numbers, ichi, ni or san. They were instructed to pound the rice when their number was called. "Ichi, ni, san! Ichi, ni, san!" the BIJAC member called, and between each strike he nimbly flipped over the rice without getting his fingers pounded. It was quite thrilling to watch!
Once the rice was completely pounded, it was transferred inside. There, visitors were allowed to roll their own mochi. We were instructed to pull a small piece off with our fingers and, with our hands coated in rice flour, roll it into a ball. We then flattened the ball between our palms, and put a small amount of ahn, or red bean paste, in the center. We pinched the mochi up around the ahn, and again rolled it in our hands until we had our beautiful mochi.
Visitors were also given a cup of green tea and a bowl of ozoni soup to enjoy, the recipe for which is below.
4 cups clear soup, such as dashi, chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
4 pieces plain softened mochi (not with ahn in the center)
Vegetables such as carrots, spinach or daikon
8 slices kamaboko, or fishcake
Mix broth with soy sauce and salt.
Toast mochi until puffed.
Cut vegetables and kamaboko into 1/4 inch slices, then blanch vegetables in boiling water.
Place one or two mochi in each bowl, garnish with kamboko and vegetables, then pour soup on top.