You thought it was pufferfish (fugu), didn’t you? Well, as risky as that particular food may be, it doesn’t hold a candle to that sticky rice confection that takes the widest variety of forms. Usually, Japan sees a spike around New Year’s in hospitalizations from eating this treat, as well as a few deaths. What exactly are people doing to make this so risky? Why even take the risk? One word: Tradition!
Mochi and The New Year
Around the New Year, there is a wide variety of foods you’re supposed to eat in order to secure your luck, fortune, and to generally give yourself the optimal everything for the next batch of 365 days or so.
Kagami Mochi (mirror rice cake) is the New Year mochi, most often seen in a stack of two with a Daidai (bitter orange) on top. Most homes will include this pair of foods for decorations to bring in the good fortunes and Shinto god of the New Year. If a Daidai is unavailable, most people will replace it with a standard Mikan Orange, which also happens to be much tastier (people only decorate with the Daidai; it’s not commonly eaten). The two mochi in the Kagami Mochi symbolize the last year and the coming year, and the Daidai symbolizes the continuation of the family for generations.
Right, so how does this lead to injury and death? Well, you see, mochi can be very sticky and chewy, making it rife for the choking. This tends to strike the most vulnerable among us: The elderly and children. The Kagami Mochi is used to make Ozoni, a traditional New Years food containing the deadly mochi, which is a type of soup to ensure longevity. Oh, the irony! Already in 2020, it’s claimed at least one life and sent at least 15 more to the hospital. If you must eat this food, please take small bites and chew thoroughly! Even the Tokyo Fire Department puts out similar guidelines and advisories to avoid such tragedies, but sadly, the trend seems to harm people every year.
Varieties of Mochi
Most people in America know mochi as the sticky rice dough with ice cream on the inside. While yes, that is one way to eat mochi, mochi itself is the pulverized rice. It comes in a variety of types, such as warabi mochi. This is a gelatin made from pulverized rice and is usually a nice treat to cool down in the summer.
There are mochi for every season, it seems: Sakura Mochi in the spring to celebrate the cherry blossoms, as well as Kashiwamochi for Children’s Day. Kashiwamochi is that pretty pink, sticky mess usually with red bean inside with an oak leaf wrapped on the outside. Warabi mochi for the summer, and your Kagami Mochi for the winter/New Year.
Whatever your flavor of mochi, make sure you don’t choke on it. A good rule of thumb for any new food is to take a small bite and chew thoroughly before swallowing. It’s all fun and games until you black out in an ambulance because you got too ambitious with your rice cakes!