Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Comfort Food

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When my father had the stroke that eventually killed him, I asked my mother if she could make me mochi.

Mochi are a uniquely Japanese food—small white cakes made of glutinous pounded rice, molded in gentle little mounds with the look and feel of finely kneaded bread dough.  Historically, making mochi was a community effort.  People worked together, pounding rice, shaping it into a pliable mass, and then cooking the cakes.  It truly took a village to make mochi.  They were considered a spiritual food, often eaten at the first of the year to insure that life and relationships remained whole for another year.  Today, mochi making machines, not villages, churn out the little cakes, which are often eaten as a snack without spiritual fanfare.

Mom making mochi. Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, f.2.8

Handcrafting a mochi. Nikon D3s, 24-70 mm f.2.8

Still, mochi are my comfort food, and this was a time in my life that I needed comfort.  My father, who was to me both parent and friend, was in intensive care.  In my heart, I knew he wouldn’t recover from the devastation done by the stroke.

So I really needed my mochi.  When I’m stressed, lonely or sad, I crave a mochi in the same way that others might crave chocolate.  I chew each one slowly, savoring the density and warmth as it fills whatever void I have at the time.

However, for the most part, I eat mochi because I want to.  I love their texture, the flavor released by mashing it into a mixture of slightly sweetened soy sauce.

Eating mochi also ties me to my mother’s roots, and connects me with my heritage.  She was from a small seaside village in Japan called Sajima.  The youngest of six sisters, her own father died before she was born.  She and her sisters all lived in her mother’s village.  Since her uncles were fisherman, they never went hungry during the war.  At nineteen, she began working as a typist at the U.S. Naval Base in Yokosuka, a city south of Tokyo.  There, she met my father who was in the Navy.  With her family’s blessings, they married.

I was born in Japan. With my mother, I moved to America when my father’s assignment in Yokosuka ended.  Finding herself transplanted into postwar America of the 1950s, my mother tried very hard to assimilate and blend into this strange new world.   She didn’t teach my siblings or me to speak Japanese, and I don’t remember her talking too much about life in Japan.   But food remained a conduit to her home culture that she kept open.

Life in the United States was not what my mother had envisioned.  My father soon had to return to sea.  He thought if might be easier if we all lived with his mother in Spring Lake, Michigan while he was gone.  He could not have imagined how wrong he was.   We lived on the edge of poverty.   My grandmother’s house was run down, and constantly needed repairs.  The first winter we stayed there, icicles hung from the ceiling of our room.

To make matters worse, my mother and grandmother turned out to be as compatible as oil and water.  My grandmother had emigrated from Poland.  Widowed at a young age, she had raised her seven children during the Great Depression.  From those experiences she had learned to make heavy food from cheap ingredients.

I can only guess that my mother must have written letter after letter to her sisters, complaining about her wretched life in America.  Soon after we got to Michigan, boxes started to arrive from Japan.

The best of these care packages usually came around Christmas.  They were always large, covered in brown paper and wrapped tightly with jute string.  The tops were decorated with twenty or thirty exotic looking stamps, and a weathered postmark with a month-old date.  Back then, packages from Japan came by sea.   The cost of sending anything by air was so outrageous that it wasn’t even considered.

My mother would eagerly cut the string, tearing off the brown paper and slicing open the box.  With those actions, we were transported through a portal to another universe.  Out tumbled candies, tangy soy-flavored Japanese crackers, and mixes for soups, sauces, and dark sheets of paper-thin seaweed called nori.  There would be towels with strange lettering that looked like drawings that I later learned were Kanji characters. Every box had a large pile of soft cotton hankies as though they were disposables that needed yearly restocking.  And oddly, her sisters would send pajamas for my mother.   Sometimes a toy or two would be included, but the box was mostly filled with food.  At the bottom there were always blocks of dried rice cakes—mochi.  After their month long journey, the cakes sometimes had a bit of mold on them.  Always practical, my mother just scraped it off and cooked them anyway.

My mother grilled the mochi on a dry cast iron skillet.  Fresh, the dough is silky soft, a fleeting texture that quickly dries to the consistency of hardened play dough.  Heating a cake on a hot grill or warming it in a microwave causes a remarkable transformation, as the firm dough softens to a texture resembling warm silly putty.

When ready, the cakes puffed up like little balloons.  She served them with a toping of soy sauce and sugar.  My siblings and I tore them apart with our small kid teeth, savoring the gummy texture and licking the salty soy sauce off our lips.

Mashing the mochi. Nikon 700, 50mm f.1.4

To the uninitiated, eating mochi may seem like trying to devour a large wad of gum after it’s been chewed a few times, but to me, a plate of mochi is pure comfort—a culinary delight.

After watching varied reactions from many friends that I’ve introduced to mochi, I’ve become convinced that, to be a true mochi eater, you must have some Asian blood—preferably Japanese—to actually relish the stretchy, chewy experience.

Of course, there are always exceptions.  Occasionally I encounter folks whose gene pool must have mutated somewhere along the line to tolerate—even appreciate–this unusual Asian cuisine.

The aesthetics of cooked mochi can evoke odd reactions from those who haven’t been raised with it.  My husband, who doesn’t have a drop of Asian blood in him, tried a bite once.  Only once.  Now, he looks almost frightened whenever I ask if he wants a taste of my mochi.  I ask out of politeness, knowing (actually hoping) that he will refuse.  On the other hand, our children eagerly devour mochi mashed in soy sauce.  They’d rather have that than a thick fluffy donut.  But they’re a quarter Japanese.

Watching this next generation continue my own love of mochi, I’m reminded of those times long ago in Michigan, when my own mother would serve us mochi.  Doing so transported her for a brief moment back to Japan with her sisters, where they’d laugh, share secrets and dream of what their future would bring them.

Attempting to eat a mochi. Nikon 700, 50mm, f.1.4

Written by kasmauski

April 24, 2010 at 11:24 pm

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