The word “mochi“ has slowly been creeping into English vernacular to describe sweetened dumplings made with a sticky short-grain rice. But in Japanese, mochi simply refers to mochi-mai (steamed short-grain rice) that’s been pounded into a smooth, sticky dough. For centuries, mochi has been a part of festive occasions in Japan, especially during the new year holidays. Kagamimochi (round, stacked “mirror mochi”) is used as a sacred offering to the gods, and mochi in general is the staple food of the holiday period, replacing steamed rice. The center of new year holiday meals is zōni, or ozōni (a hearty soup with mochi cakes in it).
The tradition of eating mochi at New Year’s started in the imperial court during the Heian Period (794-1185), when it was used during the Shinto “Hagatame no Gi” (“Tooth-hardening Ceremony”) ritual to wish for longevity and good health.
The ceremony got its name from the difficulties of eating osagari (mochi left out in the open as an offering to the gods). By the time humans were allowed to eat them, the mochi had hardened, testing the teeth. The custom of eating zōni started in the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), when people finally hit upon the idea of softening the hard, dry mochi by stewing them.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), as the nation became prosperous and agriculture more productive, the current style of eating fresh (or quickly dried and grilled) mochi spread widely among regular people. Regions developed their own recipes for zōni, differences that persist to this day.
According to the National Mochi Manufacturers Association, there are three main types of zōni. Miso soup-based zōni is prevalent in the Kansai region, where the preference is for round, individual mochi cakes, rather than the square ones cut from a large sheet typical in the rest of the country. Another type, popular in Tottori Prefecture, has a sugar-sweetened adzuki bean base, much like oshiruko (a sweet mochi and bean dessert). The third type, which is eaten everywhere else, has a clear soup base. But within those categories there are dozens of variations on what ingredients are added to the broth, from seafood to vegetables, chicken or other meat, even nuts.
This recipe is from the Tokyo-central Kanto region, where I grew up. There are differences in zōni styles even within Tokyo — for instance, sometimes the stock is made with chicken bones rather than, or in addition to, konbu seaweed and katsuobushi (skipjack tuna). You can use this recipe to get the basics of zōni down, but I encourage you to adopt the style of your in-laws, if you can.
Recipe: Kanto-style zōni (New Year’s mochi soup)
Ingredients (serves 4)
• 800 milliliters cold water
• 10 centimeter-square dried konbu seaweed (about 10 grams)
• 10 grams (a large handful) katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes)
• 120 grams boneless chicken thighs
• 1 tablespoon sake
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 4 to 8 square mochi rice cakes
• ½ bunch (about 100 grams) komatsuna greens
• 4 to 8 pieces carrot
• 3 teaspoons soy sauce
• 4 slices pink and white kamaboko fish cake
• Salt or soy sauce to taste
• A small piece of yuzu citrus zest
The night before, put the konbu seaweed in 800 milliliters of water in a closed container. Refrigerate overnight.
Heat the water with the konbu. Just before it starts to boil, add the katsuobushi. Turn off the heat and wait for the katsuobushi to sink to the bottom of the pan. Strain the dashi liquid through a fine mesh sieve lined with a paper towel.
Trim off any excess fat from the chicken and cut into bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle with the sake and salt and marinate for 10 to 15 minutes.
Bring a pot of water to a boil and boil the komatsuna greens for 2 to 3 minutes. Drain, cool under running water and squeeze out tightly. Cut into 3-centimeter pieces.
Bring a small pan of water to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and the carrot pieces. Cook over medium heat until the carrots are tender, about 5 minutes. Drain.
Cut the kamaboko into half-centimeter-thick slices. Cut the yuzu zest into small sticks, then make a slice halfway into each to shape them into pine needles.
Preheat the oven or a toaster oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Line a baking sheet with kitchen parchment paper and space the mochi cakes on it evenly. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the mochi puffs up and is lightly browned.
Heat up the dashi stock and add the chicken. Cook over medium heat for 5 to 6 minutes, skimming off any scum. Add the komatsuna, mochi cakes and kamaboko. Simmer until heated through. Taste the soup and add a little soy sauce or salt if needed. Serve in bowls, decorated with the carrot and yuzu peel.