Pounding Rice

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground…” Genesis 3:19a

Mochitsuki   We watched with admiration at the efficiency and precision of two people engaged in the Japanese tradition of making mochi. Mochi is a rice cake made from a particular strain of rice and it is customary to eat it with the coming of the new year. The traditional method for making it is called mochitsuki (餅つき), where one individual rhythmically beats the rice placed in a large mortar (usu) with a two-handed wooden mallet (kine) while the other person deftly turns the rice anticipating the next blow.

The preparation of mochi actually begins the previous day by soaking the rice for several hours before steaming it. Then, the ritual pounding begins, usually taking place in a festive atmosphere at schools or neighborhood gatherings. When the rice has reached the right consistency and no individual grains remain, it is finally removed and divided into edible portions. This ancient form of preparation is usually associated with the new year, but mochi is actually eaten year-round and modern machinery has for the most part replaced the more traditional, labor-intensive process. Hundreds of years ago, mochi was offered as a special food to the gods in Shinto rituals and the practice still continues today in many homes and shrines.

Mochi is often eaten as a form of dessert, along with a sweet red bean paste (anko) and various confectionary powders are typically added. One of the most famous variations is the sakuramochi, or “cherry blossom” mochi, sold in the spring with the onset of cherry blossom season. Because of its thick consistency, mochi presents a potential choking hazard, so it is not uncommon to hear of fatalities connected to its consumption.

The general activity of eating seems to be an important theme at the outset of human history as indicated in the early chapters of Genesis. For example, the first created humans, Adam and Eve, were told by God that they were “free to eat from any tree in the garden” (2:16) but then an additional instruction warned them that they “must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (2:17) After their disobedience, the serpent who tempted them, is cursed and is doomed to eat dust” for the remainder of its existence. (3:14) Following that, the ground itself is cursed because of the man and woman’s disregard for God’s command and it is only “through painful toil [they] will eat food from it.” (3:17) Before they are cast out of the Garden of Eden they are told once again: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” (3:19)

Anyone who watches the traditional process of mochitsuki will certainly take away the impression that considerable toil is a prerequisite to actually eating it. Since that initial sin in the Garden, the same is essentially true for everything we consume, as it is only through our labor that we have money to purchase food or the physical labor of others to produce and prepare it. Taken in this light, our daily consumption of food and other necessities in life serves as a subtle reminder of the consequences of sin and how the choices we make can reverberate for eternity. Sadly, every year, some people will die from eating mochi and much more sadly, many  more will perish because of their utter disregard for God’s truth.