What Is Mochi and Why You Should Be Careful When Eating It

Japanese mochi.

Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made from short-grain glutinous rice called mochigome. (Image: Rodolphe Courtier via Flickr)

Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made from short-grain glutinous rice called mochigome. Though it is eaten all year round, it is particularly popular during the Japanese New Year since it is considered to be the traditional food for the day. It also has a reputation for being dangerous, particularly for elders and kids.

Harmful mochi?

This has been a popular dish among the Japanese ever since it was created. In fact, during the Heian period (A.D. 794 to A.D. 1192), it was actually considered “food for the gods” and was used in religious offerings. The Samurai found the food easy to take along on their journeys, while the rice farmers discovered that it was ideal for increasing their stamina.

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Since mochi is made with glutinous rice, sugar, water, and cornstarch, it is one of the few foods that is packed with protein, but free from cholesterol and gluten. The steaming of the rice and its subsequent pounding is what makes the product gluten-free. One serving (roughly 1.5 ounces) provides 24 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.

Given these health benefits, you might find it difficult to believe that mochi is actually seen as a dangerous food by some people. The danger does not lie in the ingredients themselves, but comes from the texture of the dish, which tends to be sticky.

“The buns are chewy and sticky. Given they are far bigger than bite-sized, they need to be laboriously chewed before swallowing. Anyone who can’t chew properly — like children or the elderly — will be likely to find them hard to eat. If not chewed but simply swallowed, the sticky mochi gets stuck in the throat — and can lead to suffocation,” according to the BBC. Elderly people are believed to account for almost 80 percent of suffocation victims every year.

Mochi ice cream is a popular dessert made by wrapping a ball of ice cream inside a layer of mochi.
Mochi ice cream is a popular dessert made by wrapping a ball of ice cream inside a layer of mochi. (Image: via Pixabay)

In 2015, almost 128 people were hospitalized in Japan after eating mochi. Nine of them ended up dying. The country’s National Police Agency together with the Fire and Disaster Management Agency recently launched a promotional blitz to educate people about the dangers linked to eating this. Despite the risks, people continue eating this treat during the New Year due to the long-standing tradition.

Authorities have asked citizens to cut mochi into small pieces and chew them vigorously before ingesting them to avoid the risk of suffocation. If people take big pieces, swallowing can be difficult. Officials have warned people not to eat it alone. Families tend to keep a vacuum cleaner close by when someone is eating the sweet. If they find that the person is choking, the machine is used to suck out the morsel from the throat. In case a vacuum cleaner is not available, a vigorous slap on the back can also push out the mochi stuck in the throat.

Preparation and use

Preparing mochi is a laborious process. Polished glutinous rice is collected and cleaned overnight. Then, the rice is steamed, mashed, and pounded using wooden mallets in a mortar. The pounding process usually involves the work of two people, one who pounds it and the second person who wets and turns it in between. A steady rhythm is required or else the workers might end up injuring each other. Once it has become sticky enough, it is cut into the desired shape.

The pounding process requires a steady rhythm or else the workers might end up injuring each other.
The pounding process requires a steady rhythm or else the workers might end up injuring each other. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

Even though mochi is a popular food, it is also used as an ingredient in various dishes. A popular one includes small balls of ice cream wrapped inside mochi. Japanese soups like zoni, chikara udon, and oshiruko use it as an ingredient. Traditional sweets like mochigashi and wagashi are made with it. Daifuku is a dish prepared with mochi stuffed with a sweet mixture.

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