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Dec 28, 2020

This sticky-rice treat is a time-honored way to welcome a fresh new year.

This sticky-rice treat is a time-honored way to welcome a fresh new year.

The Japanese have quite a few distinct New Years traditions, including eating soba noodles on New Year’s Eve, visiting a Shinto shrine on New Years Day, as well as “big cleaning” projects—like washing the car and cleaning all the linens—that represent a fresh start to the year.

One of the most popular, however, involves the rice cakes called mochi; during New Years, people gather for mochitsuki, or pounding mochi to create a favorite treat.

What’s Mochi?

Mochi is an important part of Japanese cuisine—this silky, stretchy round rice cake is made from sticky rice and water pounded with a mallet until smooth and doughy. Mochi can be served sweet or savory, like a dumpling, or grilled, or wrapped around sweet green tea ice cream. 

How Traditional New Years Mochi is Made

Mochitsuki ceremonies start with rice soaked and steamed overnight. The next day, in a giant wooden or stone mortar, the rice is pounded with a huge wooden mallet by a tag team of multiple people, with several pounding their mallets one at a time, and one turning and wetting the rice in a back-and-forth dance between mallet swings. The workers chant “yoshi, yoshi” in a grunting rhythm as they pound and pull the rice into a silky texture. 

When the rice is transformed into smooth mochi, the blob is pulled and rolled into small pieces, covered in a light dusting of flour, and rolled into balls.

How New Years Mochi is Enjoyed

The cakes are boiled in soup or grilled or flattened and reshaped into balls stuffed with sweet azuki-bean paste. 

Mochi is also part of a traditional Japanese New Year’s decoration called kagami mochi, a decorative double-decker mochi cake topped with a mandarin orange. The double-layer represents a doubling of good luck or fortune. The mandarin on top represents hope and prosperity for future descendants. 

Try It Yourself

Pounding your own mochi is a bit of a commitment, but it’s easy enough to find mochi cakes in stores or online, or make your own using mochiko, or rice flour. This recipe for daifuko, or mochi stuffed with sweet red beans, is an easy way to welcome this tradition into your home for New Years'