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Shoichi Sugiyama (right) cues an adult volunteer at Sunday's event.
The hundreds of eager attendees who rhythmically swung a kine, or wooden mallet, at this

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Mochi Tsuki Volunteers Grateful for Machine

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Shoichi Sugiyama (right) cues an adult volunteer at Sunday's event.
The hundreds of eager attendees who rhythmically swung a kine, or wooden mallet, at this weekend's 25th annual Mochi Tsuki on Bainbridge Island would surely be sympathetic to mochi master Shoichi Sugiyama's sometime reliance on a machine to pound rice for the traditional New Year's treat. But Sugiyama, who cued the mallet strikes, said his daughter's rarely so forgiving.

"She said, 'Daddy, you used machine. Daddy, no'," said Sugiyama, a Japanese native who now works for a hot tub company in Bellevue.

"The taste is a little...," he continued, searching for the right English adjective to convey a subtle shift toward mediocrity. "Handmade mochi really stretch."

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But with more than 1000 interested observers lining up for free mochi samples, the organizing Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community has little choice but to steam and process sweet rice in a commercial machine, similar to a bread maker.

When Sugiyama makes mochi at home according to the ancient process approved by his daughter, it takes two people about 10 minutes to hammer enough rice for 100 pieces of mochi. And whacking rice with a heavy mallet isn't just time-consuming: It's dangerous.

"I'm OK, but maybe you hit the hand or hit the head," Sugiyama said.

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So while the event still features interactive demonstrations of pounding and forming rice cakes ("make it flat, like pizza dough," Takako Satoh advised flummoxed first-timers), volunteers welcomed the recent shift to machine production. "You can't tell the difference," maintains Glen Nakata, who oversees the old-style steaming in wooden boxes over an open fire.

While mochi can be made with red bean paste, black bean paste or -- Sugiyama's favorite -- mugwort, the mochi distributed at Mochi Tsuki are unadorned, save for sugared soy sauce served on the side. Since making mochi is usually a family activity, rather than a community event, every volunteer has slightly different mochi memories. But there's no disagreement about what kind of mochi to prepare in mass quantities.

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"You can't really deviate from the way it's been done," Nakata said. "If you ask any of the older Japanese old-timers, this is the only way."

Still, Nakata professes a handed-down personal preference for toasted mochi over the fresh mochi served Sunday.

"My mom would broil it and kind of make a crust on it and put tamari on top," he recalled. "It's so good."

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