I'm backing up to a few days ago to when I was invited to the nursery school yearly event of making omochi. Hmm... How to explain omochi? Simply it is just a rice cake. It is made of a different kind of rice than one normally eats for breakfast or dinner and it is extremely sticky. When it is pounded it makes a glutinous mass that is heavy and needs to be shaped into little cakes or, after it hardens, cut into small pieces. Omochi is a necessity at New Year's and occasionally at other celebrations (much like you can't have Thanksgiving without a turkey? You can't have New Year's without omochi in Japan.) When I was a child my father (American all the way!) would turn up his nose at omochi that my Japanese grandparents would eat.
"The reason Japanese only eat that stuff once a year is because it stays in your stomach all year long!"
He did not appreciate omochi.
On Monday I went to the nursery school where the principal and teachers were getting the steamed omochi rice ready to be pounded. In olden days all farm families has these huge mortor and mallet and communities would gather to pound rice and shape them into balls. Nowadays someone has invented an automated omochi pounder which looks like a mini-washing machine or maybe like a bread maker. The steamed omochi rice is thrown in and after about 10 minutes of spinning and agitating it turns to the right consistency for shaping.
So that the nursery school children would get the idea of how omochi is really made, the principal acquired a mortar and mallet and let them have a go at it. Actually this set is child size. The real ones are quite a bit larger and two people can pound at the same time. The kids took turns pounding the rice while every called out encouragement in rhythm.
"Heave-ho! Don't give up!"
As you can see, I got into the act too.
Afterwards, the teachers and I made mini rice balls and three flavors of omochi were prepared. From top to bottom, soy sauce and sea weed omochi, fermented soy bean omochi, and sweet bean paste omochi. Yum! The kids wanted seconds and thirds and fourths!
Already at home I have been given two or three bags of farm made omochi and another friend called last night to tell me to come pick up a slab that she had prepared for me. We may eat nothing else but omochi for New Year's!