Sticky mochi-gome (glutinous rice) straight from the steamer changes visibly into well-rounded mochi (a type of rice cake) in the rice mortar as mochi-pounding progresses. It only takes three minutes. A team of two people — a tsukite (pounder) with a mallet-style pestle and a kaeshite (turner) to rotate the mochi — work together in well-timed fast-alternating motion. In the last 10 seconds, the action changes so fast that it’s hard to see it. Amazing!
High-speed mochi-tsuki (mochi-pounding) has become a famous local custom. That’s especially true in parts of Kami-kitayama-mura located in southeastern Nara Pref., where Mr. Nakatani is from.
“Since mochi-pounding often takes place during the cold season, it’s crucial to finish pounding while the mochi rice is still hot, and pounding it evenly and firmly is very important. Only this sort of method can make smooth yet full-bodied mochi that can be easily stretched. We shouldn’t rely on a mochi-pounding machine. Human hand-pounding action is the only way to create such delicious mochi.”
The basic ingredient of mochi (sticky rice cake) is a special rice called mochi-gome (sweet rice or glutinous rice). This is stickier than the regular rice (uruchi-mai) commonly eaten in Japanese households. First, a large quantity of mochi-gome is steamed, and then it’s put into a wooden rice mortar and hand-pounded with a wooden mallet. These events have been held at New Year’s time and on other auspicious occasions since olden days in Japan. However, such activities are rarely seen now.
Mr. Nakatani says, “About the time I was in my village, there were more frequent opportunities for mochi-pounding during New Year’s time and at village-boosting events. Then, as sightseers witnessed our mochi pounding, they really enjoyed it. That motivated us to start this business.”
Nakatanidou is located in a shopping street that’s just a 10-minute walk from famous Nara Park, which is well-known for its herd of Japanese deer. When Mr. Nakatani and his colleagues start pounding mochi in the shop’s front area, a smiling crowd gathers at the window and in the street.
“People enjoy seeing us pounding mochi. And when they eat our sticky rice cake hot and fresh out of the rice mortar, they’re even happier,” he says. “How lucky I am to do this sort of work!”
Mr. Nakatani raises mochi in his hand and flings it into the bottom of the rice mortar. Whap! This is the sign that delicious mochi is finished and ready to go. Yomogi-mochi (wormwood sticky rice cake) is divided into pieces and reshaped into round disks for easy eating. Kinako (toasted soybean flour) powder is dredged over pieces before serving. The gentle aroma of wormwood leaves comes out of the cake; the center is filled with refined sweet bean paste; and the mochi itself has a deliciously soft texture that only comes hot-and-fresh right out of the rice mortar. A masterpiece!
He says, “For our products, I pay great attention to all the basic ingredients — glutinous rice, wormwood, soybean flour, and sweet bean paste. I use a special selection of bean pastes from Tokachi, Hokkaido. Then I finish it by controlling the sweetness while adding a secret accent — a pinch of salt.”
Yomogi-mochi with dredged soybean flour is the best way to enjoy delicious mochi, according to Mr. Nakatani. If hot-and-fresh mochi is served in this way, that’s no doubt that what he says is true. As soon as you put a piece in your mouth, you’ll be amazed and delighted — a happy person! The mochi-pounding process is repeated various times daily in the shop front area. It’s worth making a little extra effort to drop by this street and taste this hot rice cake.
This custom-ordered rice mortar is made of Japanese zelkova wood. It’s used to manually produce mochi by putting steamed sticky rice into this mortar and pounding it with a kine (heavy pestle). In order to let the kaeshite easily put his hand into the mortar and turn the mochi at the exact moment between these mallet strokes, the depth of the mortar is shallow. Mr. Nakatani has run his business for 22 years and this rice mortar is the fifth generation usu.
The kine that pounds glutinous rice is also custom-ordered and made of Japanese zelkova. The end part of the handle has a stopper to prevent slippage. The entire weight of this mallet pestle is as heavy as lead. The knack of good mochi-pounding is allowing the full weight of the head to drop into the center of the mortar.
This wooden steamer is especially for steaming glutinous rice. Several steamers are stacked atop each other during this cooking process. (By the way, Nakatanidou selects Hiyoku-mochi brand glutinous rice produced in Saga Pref.)