Guest Author - Chidori Phillips
As a little girl, I looked forward to mochitsuki days when friends and family would gather at my aunt and unclefs house to pound mochi. The work began long before people arrived with my aunt and great-grandmother washing and soaking large volumes of sweet glutinous rice the night before. In the morning, the rice was drained and poured into cloth-lined wood baskets to steam over simmering water. Long tables were lined up, covered and then coated with katakuriko (potato starch) or cornstarch. The women all donned white kerchiefs and aprons.
The men concerned themselves with the fire and the usu. The one had nothing to do with the other. A small open fire was started in order to roast fresh oysters and clams. The usu was the large mortar for the mochi. Ifm unsure where we got the usu but I suspect that my uncle made it himself. He was a hobby stone mason and often cast Japanese garden features using molds. The usu was made of stone.
Suddenly, one or two of the stronger women would emerge from the kitchen and pour hot rice into the usu. The first man, if he were less experienced, would hoist a kine or wooden mallet high into the air and bring it down hard onto the rice. Some of it would splatter. Another male would take the mallet and demonstrate how to pound with little lifts until the rice got slightly mashed and then, the heavy pounding would commence. After each pound and as the mallet made its upward arc, a second male would thrust in his hands to turn over the sticky rice. The rice was so searing hot that this man would have to dip his painful hands into a bucket of ice water nearby.
The pounding and turning fell into a rhythm. Sometimes, the men would chant to help keep the pace. Everyone wanted his turn. If a younger male didnft pay attention to his timing, he could get his hands whacked by the mallet. And experienced or not, several men had near misses which evoked laughter.
My aunt or great-grandmother would come out to check the progress and when the mochi was deemed ready, the entire batch was lifted into a large bowl or tub. The women, who had been passing time chatting, now had their work to do. They pinched off little bits of mochi and rolled and patted them into little patties, coated them with katakuriko (potato starch) or cornstarch to prevent sticking and then boxed them or stuffed them with an (red bean paste). The process continued with more batches of sweet sticky rice until it was all made into mochi.
Mochitsuki days had a festival feel to it, with laughter, chatting, rhythmic pounding. Children were shooed away from the usu. Young boys were disappointed not to be allowed a turn with the mallet. Young girls, on the other hand, were recruited to roll mochi unless they required too much practice and instruction. Then, they too were dismissed to find something else to do which usually meant chasing each other or poking sticks into the bon fire. The men drank beer and sake, sampled mochi and cracked open oysters while the women finished up the mochi and cleaning. It grew quite dark before we all went home.
Those days were happy ones for me and I lamented that today mochitsuki is done only as an historical preservation demonstration by cultural groups. So my husband and I, wanting to preserve my heritage and pass it onto our children, have decided to host mochitsuki annually once again. Of course, I searched high and low for a good usu, and not having any luck, we decided to make our own. One of wood and one of stone.
I will post pictures of our progress. Meanwhile, if you have pictures of past mochitsuki days or memories of such, please share them with us! After we complete our usu, Ifll walk you through the actual steps of hosting your very own.