Japanese Americans gather at LA temple to make traditional New Year mochi

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Japanese Americans gathered at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple on Friday to make mochi, a traditional celebration of the New Year.

About 70 people transformed 200 pounds of rice into the sweet rice cakes known as mochi. Besides eating the treats, the observant place mochi on temple altars to pay respect to the food that sustains us, said Trish Nicholson, a retired teacher who attends the temple.

“It’s just a really fun time,” said Nicholson, a third generation Japanese American. “A time for the children, the parents, the teenagers, everyone to just get their hands in on it, make the mochi, pound it.”

The process of making mochi is harder than it looks. First, participants soaked 200 pounds of sweet rice for a day. Then, the rice was taken in batches and steamed.

Afterward, the rice was placed into small machines that would knead it into sticky dough. Traditionally, the Japanese would pound the cooked rice into dough, said Shin Ito, who was watching the machines.

“This is 2012, so it’s automation,” Ito said. “There’s a machine that does that for you.”

Then, the sticky dough is passed along to other participants, who fluff and spin the dough by hand until it’s turned into a solid mass. The mass is taken apart into little pieces and passed to temple goers like Trish Nicholson, who make it into its final form.

Nicholson takes the small piece of dough and rolls it into a ball. Then she flattens it into a pancake and places a ball of red bean inside. Then, she closes it back up into a ball.

“This is one of my favorite activities of the year -- to come and make mochi for New Year’s,” Nicholson said. “It connects me to my roots to what people used to do in Japan and what my grandmother and my mother did. It keeps me close to my family.”

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