On Dec. 31 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, preparations for the New Year are well under way. Speakers have been set up along the city’s main avenue for countdown festivities, and beachgoers have been clogging the freeways for days. In the Liberdade neighborhood, center of Sao Paulo’s Japanese community, another year-end tradition unfolds. Mochitsuki, or mochi making, takes place here annually. Thousands gather for the event’s 40th incarnation — to watch the rice pounding, to eat ozoni soup, and to make wishes for the upcoming year.
One of several special foods eaten during Oshogatsu, mochi symbolizes longevity and prosperity. It is made from a special kind of rice called mochigome, which is stickier than normal white rice. Traditionally, men pounded the grains into a single mass using wooden mallets known as kine. Women and children then formed small cakes from the dough. Mochitsuki refers to this hands-on process, which has largely been replaced by commercial manufacturing. But the historic method lives on in communities who want to preserve Japanese culture.
With a Nikkei population of more than 300,000, Sao Paulo is one such place. The city brings together descendants of a 20th century wave of immigration. In the early 1900s, difficult conditions in rural Japan prompted many families to leave the country. Facing a shortage of labor on its coffee plantations, Brazil welcomed the migrants. Today, the South American nation boasts the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.
The mochitsuki festival highlights the strength of Sao Paulo’s Japanese community. Sponsored by the Liberdade Cultural Welfare Association, or ACAL, the event draws a diverse crowd of thousands. “We can’t estimate precise numbers,” says Selva Ferreira, ACAL’s public relations director, “but we prepare 20,000 bags of mochi and 3,000 bowls of ozoni to distribute, and we hand out most of them.”
The line to collect mochi stretches around the corner. “We’ve been waiting 20 minutes,” complains a young man at the front of the line.
Producing enough mochi to meet demand requires immense material and human resources. It takes 2,100 kilograms (11.32 ounces) of mochigome and at least 90 people to do the labor. Fortunately, ACAL does not have to reach into its pockets.
Instead, organizations and individuals from the community donate sacks of mochigome and scores of volunteers to the cause. Prefectural organizations like the Shizuoka Association of Brazil take up about one-third of the burden. The rest is shared by individuals and umbrella organizations like the Brazilian Society of Japanese Culture and Welfare.
The donors include Nikkei politicians, such as state assemblyman Hélio Nishimoto, and city council members Jooj Hato and Ushitaro Kamia. But they aren’t the only public figures interested in the mochitsuki festivities.
The event attracts some of the city’s most prominent personalities. This year’s cohort included the mayor of Sao Paulo, the general commander of state police, and the Japanese consul. Each dignitary pounds the mochi a few times before making a brief speech. Both the mayor and the general commander praise the Nikkei influence in Sao Paulo, and the latter even suggests that the city’s policing system has Japanese roots. “We use a koban system here in Sao Paulo, just like in Japan,” says the general commander, Colonel Alvaro Batista.
Despite the high-profile appearances, festival goers cite other reasons for attending. “I come because my grandmother used to go when the festival was just starting,” says a young Nikkei woman in line for mochi. A middle-aged man chimes in: “I’ve been coming for 10 years because I love the tradition!”
One young man has a culinary fascination. “I want to taste the mochi,” he said. “I’m going to toast it tomorrow, but I also want to try it boiled in the soup.” And yet another hopes to acquire what he calls “Asian luck.” “For me, it’s about the good luck,” he says. “Asians have success in everything they do, so why shouldn’t we?”
For those inside the community, the mochitsuki festival’s success is due to cooperation rather than luck. “Everybody does their part and contributes what they can,” says ACAL’s Ferreira.
HOW TO MAKE MOCHI
Step 1: Soak uncooked mochigome overnight in water.
Step 2: Steam the mochigome until soft.
Step 3: Place the mochigome in a mortar (usu), and pound with a wooden mallet (kine). Dip the kine in water before each pound to prevent sticking.
Step 4: In between pounds, a second person should turn the mochigome. Dip hands in water before each turn to prevent sticking.
Step 5: When the grains of mochigome have merged, remove the mass and place on a surface covered with potato starch (katakuriko). Cornstarch or tapioca flour can also be used.
Step 6: Cover hands with katakuriko or starch substitute, and break off pieces of the mochigome mass. Roll into spheres the size of golf-balls, then flatten with palms.
Step 7: Enjoy! Mochi can be baked or fried and dipped into a sauce made of equal parts sugar and shoyu. It can also be eaten in ozoni soup, made with dashi stock and soy sauce.