Mochi-making in Livingston pounds in New Year’s tradition

12/29/2013 8:24 PM

12/30/2013 4:02 PM

The annual mochi Tsuki sale doesn’t raise much money, organizers said, but the traditions the rice pounding builds are priceless.

“I think we get around $2,500 from mochi – that’s net. If you put the labor into it, I think we’d go into the hole,” said Sherman Kishi with a laugh, as he directed the flow of steaming rice to pounding bowls behind Livingston United Methodist Church on Saturday.

Kishi has helped with mochi-making since the 1990s, when the tradition rekindled in Livingston. It was first made locally in homes of the Yamato Japanese farming colony, founded more than a century ago.

In Japan, the process of pounding rice into a smooth, sticky paste goes back at least a millennium. It is a New Year’s food, mixed with sugared bean paste for a sweet treat or served in a special soup New Year’s Day, said Akiko Simmers, who emigrated from Japan decades ago.

The tradition there was for women to cook leading up to New Year’s Day, making a soup called “ozoni” with bits of mochi, greens, shiitake mushrooms and bits of fish cake or chicken in a broth of seaweed or dried fish, Simmers said. Then the women took off Jan. 1, 2 and 3 from cooking duties to visit family.

“For three days, women don’t believe in work,” she said with a smile. Traditional homes in Japan were not insulated, so food stayed fresh in the cold, she added.

Simmers stood along rows of volunteers making smooth, tennis-ball-size orbs of mochi coated in cornstarch to keep them from sticking. Beside her lay rows of “ahn,” small chocolate-colored rounds of cooked beans she folded inside the mochi. She’s improved a little on tradition in making the sweet bean paste, she said. “We find out microwave really helps.”

Kishi, too, has improved a little on tradition. The team still soaks about 500 pounds of the special sweet rice for two days, then steams it in batches over 55-gallon drums before pounding it into the glutinous pulp in traditional granite bowls. But before it goes to the bowl, the rice gets a quick grind.

The grinding really saves time before pounding, said Stu Nakashima of San Jose. Nakashima sat on a rolling garden stool – saves the knees, he noted. Another innovation: caps on the wooden mallet heads. “The wood wears down as it’s pounded and you get splinters (in the mochi),” he said.

Nakashima scraped and turned the mochi during pounding, a job that takes timing. A 10-pound blob of mochi took roughly 40 repetitions of whack – whom! – scrape-flip “Hup!” – that last by Nakashima.

The gentler whack came from Kimiko Bell, longtime mochi eater but only second-time mochi pounder. Her family toasts mochi balls and serves them with a sauce of soy sauce and sugar.

The harder whom! came from brother Mikale Bell. Though only in his second year, he used a “push-pull technique,” leveraging the end of the 5-foot mallet to give extra power to his strike.

It’s the pounding that gives the Livingston mochi its smooth, soft texture, very different from the versions made by machine or with rice powder, participants said.

“This is one of the few places they’re doing it the traditional way,” said Ann Nakashima, who drives from San Jose each year with husband, Stu. This was her 34th year of making mochi, carefully turning the sticky globs and instructing the next generation on how to make perfectly smooth balls.

“Every year it’s the same people working very hard. It’s a nice way to get together,” she said.

Kathy Hunter-Kirihara was one of the first pounders – and usually the only woman – when the mochi tradition returned to Livingston. “I remember not being able to move for two to three days,” she said. A back surgery ended her pounding days, so she sat scraping and flipping. Stopping was never considered.

“There’s a sense of family and tradition,” she said, in making what she called “good luck food.” Her grandfather was one of the early Japanese farmers in the area, and family time making mochi became a tradition. “Even when I was living on the East Coast, I came home every year for mochi,” she said.

More families return every year to be part of the congenial mix, she noted.

Joining Hunter-Kirihara this year were her 10-year-old granddaughter, Honore Preiss, and wife Joy Hunter, who helped mold the mochi into balls. “Some of the women were saying how much they like it, others were, ‘Yeah, I don’t eat it.’ But they’re here,” Hunter said. Such is the pull of tradition, she said with a smile.

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