The Magic of Japanese Rice Cakes

Authored by: Eric C. Rath

The Routledge History of Food

Print publication date:  October  2014
Online publication date:  October  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415628471
eBook ISBN: 9781315753454
Adobe ISBN: 9781317621133


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In Japan there is no food as magical as the rice cake. 1 The eighth-century Record of the Geography and Culture of Bungo (Bungo fudoki) tells the story of a man who wanted to use a rice cake as a target for archery practice only to watch as the rice cake transformed into a bird and flew away. 2 Aristocrats at the Heian-period (794–1185) court placed a small Fifty Day Rice Cake (ika no mochii) in the mouth of a baby fifty days after its birth to ensure the child’s good luck and prosperity. 3 Until the youth was six years old and had passed through the critical years that many children in that age failed to survive, every New Year a rice cake would be touched to the child’s head three times for good luck. 4 On the third day of the New Year aristocrats ate Teeth-strengthening Rice Cakes (hagatame mochi), acknowledging that the Chinese character for tooth was similar to the one meaning a century of life, and recognizing the connection between strong teeth and longevity. At festivals and celebrations at religious institutions, rice cakes remain the focus of elaborate displays on ritual altars; they are consumed and sometimes even thrown to parishioners. 5 In the early modern period (1600–1868) a rice cake could serve for a contest of good luck like a turkey wishbone: when two people tried to break a dried rice cake held between them, the person who snapped off the larger portion won. 6 Folk beliefs held that a woman would lactate in the evening if she ate a special Vitality Rice Cake (chikara mochi) in the morning. 7 The power of rice cakes to nourish was especially in demand in dire circumstances when foodstuffs resembling rice cakes, but filled with items almost unpalatable, were consumed as a last resort during famine. The fact that the steamed glutinous rice used to make rice cakes can be stretched like taffy means, according to traditional belief, that rice cakes impart a long life to those who consume them, but the rice cake’s elasticity also points to the ways that the cakes can be molded into a variety of shapes and take on a wealth of meanings depending on the context. 8

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