#FindingAsia: Mochitsuki at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, Chicago

#FindingAsia: Mochitsuki at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, Chicago

Mochi (餅), which is a sweet sticky rice cake, has been eaten in Japan since ancient times for special celebrations and festivals.

The practice of hand-pounding mochi, known as mochitsuki (餅つき), is now rare even in Japan as most people would rather buy machine-made mochi sold at stores instead of making their own.

Yet still, whether store-bought or home-made, the tradition of eating mochi on New Year’s remains deep rooted in their culture.

Mochi Tsuki 2014

Since it is a bit of a dying art, you can imagine my excitement when I learned that the Midwest Buddhist Temple holds their own traditional mochitsuki festival each December right here in Chicago.

I never even got to experience this when I lived in Japan, so of course I went out and spent the day learning all about this traditional practice!

To make mochi by hand is a considerable amount of work. First, sweet rice is soaked in water overnight. It’s then steamed and placed in an usu (碓; a large, stone mortar) where it gets pounded over and over with kine (杵), or wooden mallets.

Mochi Tsuki 2014

Mochi Tsuki 2014

The main characteristic of mochi, its stickiness, comes from constantly turning the mochi while it’s being pound in order to pound all sides equally.

A kaeshi-te is the person appointed with the dangerous task of turning over and pulling the mochi while it’s being pounded by the group of tsuki-te. The kaeshi-te continually wets his hands in order to avoid sticking to the mochi– which would in turn result in getting his hand smashed by the mallet. He is also the one guiding the tsuki-te and telling them where the need to hit next.

It’s very much an art skill. 

Mochi Tsuki 2014

Mochi Tsuki 2014

The rice has to be pounded with considerable force in order to make the mochi smooth and consistent. This means the synchronization between the tsuki-te is very important and you’ll often hear them grunting or yelling out in order to keep synchronized, kind of like they do when making sake.

Once the mochi is completely soft and homogenous, it is then formed into various shaped and sized cakes. It can be enjoyed plain, with different sauces or with sweet fillings inside like red bean.

Mochi Tsuki 2014

Mochi Tsuki 2014

And New Year tradition doesn’t just stop at eating mochi. A special variation, called kagami-mochi (鏡餅; mirror mochi) is typically placed on the family alter during the New Year as well as an offering for Shinto deities. This auspicious gesture signifies hope for a happy year ahead and good fortune!

Now that’s one delicious Japanese cultural tradition that I can get behind! Yum!

Mochi Tsuki 2014

Mochi Tsuki 2014

When to visit: December
Where to visit: 435 West Menomonee Street, Chicago, IL 60614

How to visit: El stop Sedgwick on the Brown Line

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Have you experienced Asian culture outside of Asia? Tell me about it in the comments below or share your own photo on social media using the hashtag #FindingAsia!

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49 Comments

  1. February 24, 2015 / 7:31 pm

    Wow! What an amazing process of making those! I love seeing posts like this :)

    • Beth Williams
      March 2, 2015 / 8:35 pm

      It is! So much work goes into something so small :)

  2. February 24, 2015 / 3:13 pm

    Wonderful post! I am just fascinated with their culture!

    • Beth Williams
      February 24, 2015 / 4:00 pm

      Thanks Katarina. It’s so interesting, isn’t it?

  3. February 23, 2015 / 1:12 am

    Love trying foods from different cultures. Love the shots you got!

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 11:02 am

      Thanks Stephen! It was hard getting good shots without getting in the way ;)

  4. February 22, 2015 / 11:35 pm

    What an amazing experience!! I had not heard of this New Years tradition of Mochi before.

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 11:02 am

      It’s such a fun tradition, isn’t it?

  5. February 22, 2015 / 10:10 pm

    For such a sweet and soft dessert. the mochi does take a tough time to prepare. I love having Mochis though.

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 11:01 am

      Me too! And the softer you want it, the more it takes pounding it!

  6. February 22, 2015 / 8:22 pm

    I’ve never heard of this but love seeing how it’s made! I think it’s great that these cultures have a place to practice their faith…outside of their home country!

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 11:01 am

      I agree! I’m glad little enclaves of different cultures exist all over the world.

  7. February 22, 2015 / 7:38 pm

    What an awesome tradition. I love learning about other cultures, thank you for sharing.

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 11:00 am

      Thanks for reading Geanine! Glad I could share a bit about this tradition with you. :)

  8. CourtneyLynne
    February 22, 2015 / 1:14 pm

    Omg what an awesome thing to experience!! The only Asian outside of Asia i have experienced have been China towns in various cities

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 11:00 am

      That’s still a lot of fun! I’ve only been to two Chinatowns, but I’m excited to start checking out more this year.

  9. February 22, 2015 / 12:15 pm

    What a fun thing to watch! I have never tried mochi before, but I bet I would like it!

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 10:59 am

      Let me know if you ever get the chance to try it! It’s super delicious!

  10. February 22, 2015 / 9:08 am

    Wow what a cool experience. I haven’t heard of Mochi before but these shots are great and now I’d love to try myself! How cool.

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 10:59 am

      It’s a lot of fun to make even at home!

  11. February 22, 2015 / 7:30 am

    What an amazing tradition! The amount of time and effort to celebrate this tradition is incredible to me! No wonder people are opting to buy premade mochi at stores! Although, I think that making your own is very cool!

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 10:58 am

      Yeah, it’s quite strenuous, time consuming, and also a bit dangerous! But I do appreciate them upholding these longstanding traditions :)

  12. February 22, 2015 / 3:59 am

    I love mochi, my favorite being the filled ones! We also have here mochi ice cream, which is like combining one of Japan’s best foods and everybody’s favorite dessert. Yummyyyy!!

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 10:58 am

      Love me some mochi ice cream!! It’s the perfect summertime dessert!

  13. February 21, 2015 / 10:15 pm

    Wow, that’s a lot of effort to make something like this, but I bet it’s worth every mallot pounding. It looks just like dough. I’d love to know what it tastes like.

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 10:57 am

      It really doesn’t have much flavor– just like rice. That’s why they usually add fillings like red bean, sesame, or even chocolate-covered strawberries sometimes!

  14. February 21, 2015 / 7:34 pm

    This is so interesting! I would love to try this. The mass pot looks like a guac mashing pot :-)

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 10:56 am

      It does, doesn’t it? I never really thought about that before, haha!

  15. February 21, 2015 / 2:51 pm

    I love how in love you clearly are with the Japanese culture! It shines through for sure. I always love eating, and learning about different ethnic foods, so thank you for for taking the time to show us the (very in depth) process for this food! It last must have been so cool to be at the Buddhist Temple, soaking in all of the traditions!

    • Beth Williams
      February 23, 2015 / 10:56 am

      Thanks Krysta, I’m glad that shines through! Eating different foods from around the world is always fun. :)

  16. February 21, 2015 / 2:30 pm

    Would love to try this! Looks like a lot of work, but work it in the end. What an unforgettable experience!

    • Beth Williams
      February 22, 2015 / 5:58 pm

      It is a lot of work– and tiring work at that. But mochi are just so delicious!

  17. February 21, 2015 / 1:15 pm

    Great action shots to see how its made. That’s great you were able to experience it here in the U.S

    • Beth Williams
      February 22, 2015 / 5:57 pm

      I’m glad too! It was a lot of fun.

  18. brook devis
    February 21, 2015 / 11:35 am

    wow. i love to read these kind of posts , i learn so much about these beautiful cultures around the world. Thank you very much for sharing with us this beautiful experiance u had.

    • Beth Williams
      February 22, 2015 / 5:57 pm

      Thanks for reading and enjoying Brook!

  19. Robin (Masshole Mommy)
    February 21, 2015 / 8:41 am

    I have never heard of Mochi, but it sounds really good. What a cool experience that must have been!

    • Beth Williams
      February 22, 2015 / 5:57 pm

      It was! Some of our local grocery stores sell it, maybe they do out by you, too!

  20. December 20, 2014 / 2:33 pm

    I had mochi for the first time a couple of months back and I loved it. It wasn’t in Japan (unfortunately) but it was at a Japanese Peruvian fusion restaurant in Barcelona. So good! I can’t believe how much work goes into making them – wow.

    • Beth Williams
      January 6, 2015 / 9:30 pm

      Japanese-Peruvian fusion? That sounds really interesting! I’ll be heading to Barcelona again soon, so I might just need the name of that place! ;)

  21. December 17, 2014 / 10:03 am

    I didn’t realize how much of an effort or art is involved in making mochi. It makes me appreciate this treat so much more. How neat that you were able to witness this here in the US. What a great experience! Now, I need to look for a festival like this here in Southern California. Thanks for the virtual tour!

    • Beth Williams
      December 19, 2014 / 12:31 am

      It made me appreciate it as well, even though the store ones are mostly made by machine nowadays ;)
      I’m sure there are festivals like this in Cali! Not sure about SoCal, but certainly around LA I’d imagine there’d be some!

  22. December 16, 2014 / 2:31 pm

    Beth, That’s a lotta mochi…How much fun!

    • Beth Williams
      December 19, 2014 / 12:29 am

      It was a TON of mochi! We still haven’t even finished what we took home ;)

  23. December 15, 2014 / 8:18 pm

    I made some in Japan and it was HARD WORK!!
    I love your explanation there – so many new words for me.

    • Beth Williams
      December 19, 2014 / 12:29 am

      It is hard work, omg, what I workout!

      And glad I could help teach you a few new mochitsuki terms :D