Sunday, December 28, 2008

New friends, old traditions

Today we gathered at the home of a family that Haj knows through the Young Business Owners' Association. It was a chilly but brilliantly sunny day, and the gusty winds of yesterday had calmed to a chilly breeze. There, we met 3 other families, with children who's ages ranged from 3 to 12.

In the center of the garden, one of the fathers was tending a small wood fire burning under what looked like a tiny water tower. This was a traditional old fashioned rice steamer. The man tending the fire said that his family cooked their daily rice in a contraption like this one every day, until he was a junior high school student. The rice we were cooking was not the regular rice eaten every day, but the glutenous 'mochi' rice that is traditionally cooked during the New Year season. We were about to make mochi, a pounded sticky version of the rice.

While the rice steamed, they brought out a large round wooden stump. Too heavy to carry, they rolled it out into the open, then stood it up. In the top was a perfectly carved 'bowl'. Along with this giant 'pestle', they brought out a huge wooden mallet, the head of which seemed ridiculously overbalanced to one end. They carefully washed out the basin, and kept it damp and warmed with piping hot water.

When the rice was ready, they upended the whole pot into the basin. They then started slowly kneading the rice with the mallet, rubbing and pressing it into the start of a ball. Then the fun began. The 'pounder' stood with the mallet raised above his head, then pounded the ball of rice three times in quick succession. Then, the 'turner' (traditionally the wife of the pounder) reached in and gave the hot doughy rice a quick turn. As soon as her hand is out of the way, the mallot smashes down with a satisfying thwunk. As the pair gets moving, a rhythmic movement of ultimate teamwork follows as the turner boldly reaches into the bowl with each upswing, and is out by the time the mallet comes crashing down again. "Swack - Thump - Swack - Thump..."

The 'dough' gradually gets smoother and stickier, until the turner calls 'time' and they pause. The head of the mallet is cleaned off with hot water, and the ball of dough is flipped completely. Then the rhythm starts up again, always with the initial 3 quick thwumps. Apparently this is a bit of a good luck procedure, to keep the rice from sticking, or something like that.

After quite a few cycles, the ball in the basin is a soft glossy white, looking quite like melted marshmallow. Then the women all start squeezing the hot pounded rice into bit-sized balls that look like the mochi we are all familiar with in Japan. The work is hot and fast, as the mochi gets hard as soon as it cools. For variety, we had some with 'anko' (sweet bean paste), some with 'kinako' (ground soy bean mixed with a little sugar), 'karami' (grated daikon radish, green onion, katsuo flakes, and soy sauce), and the ever famous 'ozoni' (hot broth with seaweed). When all the work was done, we all sat down and ate the wonderful fresh soft mochi, and celebrated the end of the year and the upcoming new year.

One more batch of mochi was made, and this time we rolled it into larger discs and powdered them with cornstarch. These we left out to dry and harden. On New Year's Eve, every household displays a two-disc tower of mochi to bring in the new year. So, our New Year mochi preparations done, we cleaned up and headed inside, where the kids enjoyed a karaoke competition on a big-screen projector. Great fun, great new friends, and great old traditions.

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