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Monday, June 27, 2016

The Most Dangerous Food In Japan

Mochi… a sticky, soft and sweet rice treat that is not only one of the most dangerous Japanese foods to eat, it is also one of the most dangerous Japanese foods to prepare.

I have done both… eaten and prepared… and both nearly killed me.

Mochi (餅, もち) is a Japanese rice cake made from a hammering/pounding a short-grained Japanese glutinous rice known as mochigome.

The rice is soaked over night and steamed… and then it is pounded and pounded and pounded by a kine (wooden mallet) in a mortar (large wooden bowl called a usu), until it becomes soft and stretchy like Silly Putty… or even like taffy.

While one can eat mochi at any point in the year, I have pretty much only had it around New Year’s Day… and went to my boss’, Kanemaru-san, home in Kurobane to spend the day.

The mochi-making actually took place in a neighbor’s backyard in this rustic, rural town near Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken… and after watching a husband and wife team make it—he hammered at  the mass with a very large wooden mallet, while his wife timed her insertion of hands (and head) into the bowl to twist and turn the mass to allow continued and even beating of the rice mass into a proper soft consistency.

Because it is hard work to heft that hammer, men from around the farm/village each took turns pounding the rice, while their wife took turns mixing the rice mass.

When it was my time, we could find no wife willing to risk her life with the untrained, but powerful-looking gaijin (foreigner), so I got one of the brave men who had had pulled the short straw.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t that bad. 

As I hefted and brought down and up the 10 kilogram (25lb) wooden mallet, my partner would occasionally dip his hands in water and thrust the digits into the rice mass twisting it and turning it.

(Actually, I no longer have any concept at how heavy that mallet was... so let's make it 20kg in an effort to make me seem as strong as possible.) 

After about one minute of driving work - I began to sweat in the 0C (30F) January 1 weather - I was relieved… but only for another minute… at which time I was asked if I wanted to use my quick hands to mix the rice.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

So… what the heck, right? I went to Japan on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme to help teach people English, but it was (being part of the second-wave of JETs to Japan) more about internationalizing the Japanese… showing them the foreigners weren’t sooooo different from them.

I did everything that was asked of me: from newspaper and radio interviews, eating lunch with the mayor, visiting primary schools, to home stays (also known as spending the night at a Japanese person’s home - so I can get a handle on what Japanese home life is like… it’s pretty much like western life… kids do homework, wife cooks a meal, family eats, talks, and then sleep time - yes, I know that sounds sexist, but most western homes have the wife/woman preparing meals. Mine does… but in my defense, I do the laundry, dishes, gardening).

Anyhow… slowly my hammer buddy began… and he was smart enough to not come down with the mallet until he knew I was clear… but after about 20 pounds, my speed was getting pretty good (not up to par with my Japanese female counterparts, however - but getting up there)… so I was moving my hands in and out - almost daring the mallet man to smash my fingers… and then it happened.

A small child standing near me dropped a bracelet into the bowl. I instinctively leaned in to get it… but my MC Hammer didn’t know I had broken rhythm and continued to bring that mallet down towards my head.

Kanemaru-san… I don’t know how he did it… because it was already 10AM, and we all (the guys) had already had multiple shots of sake (rice wine) and a beer to help combat the cold (which in reality probably makes one just not feel the cold, even though it’s cold effects still affect you - you just don’t know it… how did I get frostbite??!!)… anyhow… in a move that belied his soberness… he yanked me back by grabbing my shoulders so only my hands were in the way of the hammer…

And… the hammerhead… he had slowed down enough so that I only got a light rap on the back of my left hand.

Surprised that no one was dead, that little girl grabbed her bracelet from my right hand and gave me a hug and then got dragged away by a screaming mother (I assume it was hers) to be yelled at some more. I never saw her again.


So… having nearly had my head smashed in by a wooden mallet to save a child’s ¥100 ($1) plastic bracelet…. I was replaced by someone more competent… and the mochi making went on without much of a hitch… though the men continued to drink alcohol more heavily and I could hear more feminine screams of pain followed by male chortling.

I think my near-braining had scared Kanemaru-san near to death.

Can you imagine the next day at the Ohtawara Board of Education?

“So… Kanemaru-san… Andoryu-no-sensei… kzzzzzzt.
“Hai. So desu.”
“You know this will affect one of your two yearly bonuses, neh?”

Careful, Granny! That was the same mochi the gaijin-san was choking on!
Let’s just say that it would have been bad for him if something had happened to me. The bosses (Kanemaru-san and Hanazaki-san) were charged with keeping me safe, and looked after during my stay in Ohtawara-shi…. and they, even if I had been hurt while traveling outside their domain, would have felt a level of responsibility for it. I always told them where I was going, if I left the town… out of courtesy. They wouldn’t stop me… but did want to ensure that I was with someone who spoke English, as I had a habit of getting horribly lost whenever I traveled. It also rained every time I traveled. You can ask Matthew… he’s the one, I think, who dubbed me Ame Otoko (Rain Man). He made sure never to travel in the same area of Japan as I did.

Anyhow… after rice was pounded, it can be eaten right away… and everyone DID got a small sample… but in this case it was then taken to the kitchen to be shaped into a sphere… and then handed out to everyone to eat.

My first mistake was taking a huge bite out of my rice ball…

It was chewy… and chewy… and chewy… and holy crap… it doesn’t appear to be dissolving at all in my mouth… so I managed to break away what I thought was a small piece within my mouth and tried to swallow that.

That was mistake number two. Three, if you count almost being brained by a wooden mallet. Four, if think it’s me being so gung-ho in joining their mochi-making.

It almost immediately got stuck in my windpipe…. it didn’t want to go down because it was so effing stick it coated my throat… and stretched and would not break as I tried and tried to swallow it.

That’s when the little girl whose bracelet I had earlier saved saw me struggling and told her mother, who shouted to her husband outside who shouted for Kanemaru-san to come and help his gaijin no sensei because he was probably going to die.

I was turning a shade of red I had no name for… and as Kanemaru-san began thumping me on the back to try and dislodge the mochi, I stuck my own hand in my mouth and pulled out the still large main part of my mochi ball.

I then coughed out the smaller mochi killing mass from throat… held it up… looked at it… and then took a small bite… and swallowed it.

“Oishii! (Delicious!)” I yelled and there was much grunting and smiling from the crowd of men and women, respectively.

Kanemaru-san came over a minute later to ask if I was okay… I smiled and kept eating my mochi.

I wasn’t going to let them see me suffer… and I didn’t want to make Kanemaru-san feel bad.

Next year… and the year after… I didn’t get invited back to Kanemaru-san’s house for any mochi-making… but I think that was just for my own safety. He did invite me out to his place many a time… and once… once I actually cooked my famous chilli con carne for him and Hanazaki-san.

Now… I make a really good chilli… but the Japanese are so adept at lying in a nice way that I have no idea if they really did like it.

Matthew and I… we were once paid to demonstrate our cooking skills—He an Ice Cream Cake, Me, my chili con carne—making us if not professional chefs, then at least semi-professional chefs.

Anyhow… Julien sent me this video below, that shows how one superstar mochi maker uses an incredible amount of speed and skill and luck to produce the killer Japanese snack.

By the way… every year in Japan, 10s of not 100s of very old and very young Japanese die from having mochi stuck in their throat. So it's not just stupid foreigners.

Saved by my age. Banzai,
Andrew Joseph