In Japan the major religions are Buddhism and Shinto. This means that while stores may be decorated for Christmas, and holiday gifts and baked goods are readily available, Christmas isn't the main attraction this time of year. No, it's New Year's.
In Japan, New Year's — shogatsu — is one of the most important holidays of the year. Businesses will close and families will gather for parties. Malls and shopping centers will stay open, though, at least one New Year's Day. Believe it or not, these stores can be crazier than those in the U.S. on the day after Thanksgiving! Another major New Year's activity is for families to flock to the many shrines around Japan to say their prayers and hope for a good year to come.
Just like all major holidays for the different cultures and religions out there, Japan has a special food for this holiday. Maybe you have heard of it? Mochi. Yes, I said mochi. Let me guess, you have heard of this! I suspect you have, because before moving to Japan this was one of the Japanese foods I had heard of, and I knew that it was a new trend in the U.S. Perhaps you have tried mochi ice cream before. Well, the kind you actually get in Japan isn't quite the same thing, but that may give you an idea about mochi.
Mochi is a Japanese rice cake. Unlike a typical rice cake in the U.S. that is made from light and airy puffed rice, mochi is very dense. It is a glutinous, pounded rice cake. It packs a lot of calories into a small amount. As a result, only a small serving should be enjoyed in celebration. Honestly, if you have ever tried actual mochi—not the dessert or sweetened versions—you will know that you couldn't actually eat a whole lot in one sitting anyway.
Aside from the dessert or sweetened versions I already mentioned, mochi traditionally comes in a small rectangular block, maybe about a quarter-inch thick. You can buy it in the grocery store any time of year. It doesn't have much flavor so you wouldn't eat it on its own. Instead, it becomes an ingredient in other foods. For shogatsu it is made into a special soup. I have had it prepared this way, although it wasn't actually around the New Year.
The mochi was warmed by being placed on top of the stove, just resting on a small metal grate so it did not burn. The heat made this start to melt a little and it became a bit chewy and stringy. Then it was added to a soup. You can also just add the mochi to the pot and let it cook in the broth (called dashi), but not too long or it won't have the right consistency.
That dashi is a traditional broth made from bonito. If you have ever had miso soup before, then you have had dashi since it is the base for miso soup. Finally, meats and vegetables can be added to the soup as well. Different regions will use different ingredients.
Although mochi is a traditional food for celebrating the New Year, it has gained in popularity in recent years and is now a treat enjoyed all year long. I have even had it as an ingredient in okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake. Surprisingly, there is a lot you can do with mochi that goes above and beyond the dessert versions. Next time you find yourself in an Asian market, look for the mochi. It's usually sold in a rectangular block, about 1-by-2 inches and ¼ inch thick—but it can also come in round pieces. Then go ahead an experiment! Just one last piece of advice: Be very, very careful! Mochi is very glutinous, making it exceptionally chewy. It is a major choking hazard here in Japan so you always want to chew it well before swallowing.
Happy New Year! Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu!