Given that it’s made from sticky rice, just like the Japanese rice cake, and how similar the names are, it’s understandable to assume mochi and Okinawan muchi are the same.
But, although they are close, you’d be wrong.
Muchi is an Okinawan sweet with a unique look and background. One distinct feature is how it is presented.
Unlike mochi, which is most typically made by pounding sticky rice, muchi is made by kneading dough made of powdered sticky rice and water. Once the dough is ready, it is wrapped in a Gettou leaf (galingale) or a leaf of Bilow (Livistona), a kind of palm leaf before being steamed.
The leaves are common items in traditional Okinawan cooking. According to “Okinawa no Dentou Ryouri”, a book by cooking expert Kayoko Matsumoto, galingale is used as a repellent because of its strong smell, which is thought to be effective in driving away bad vibes. Likewise, Bilow palm was believed to be a sacred tree where a god resides. Since it is wrapped in a leaf, muchi is also called “kasa muchi”, which means “leaf muchi” in Okinawan dialect.
Every year on Dec. 8 of the lunar calendar, many Okinawans eat muchi as part of their local tradition. Eating the local rice cake on that specific day is meant to be a ritual to ward off bad luck and pray for health and longevity.
This has its roots in a legend where a woman fed her brother a rice cake which contained piece of metal or tile. The brother was rumored to have become a demon and eaten people. Witnessing that he could eat a rice cake containing a hard tile convinced the sister that her brother really became an evil one, and she killed him by pushing him off a cliff. Some think that this episode symbolizes the strength of women.
Dec. 8 of the lunar calendar will be Jan. 13, 2019. Around that time, winter is expected to be in full swing on Okinawa, and people describe the chill as “muchi-bisa” (chill of muchi).
Leading up to that day, many Okinawans get busy preparing muchi to start a new year with good luck. Families who have newly born babies commonly make extra muchi to share the sweets with their friends and relatives. It takes some time and effort to make, but the confection is available at some local stores as well, coming in flavors like brown sugar and sweet potato and white sugar. Recently, flavors such cocoa and squash have been introduced, as well.
When a new year rolls around and it feels chilly on the island, it’s time to make your pick and try this sticky and chewy treat for a happy new year.
Make your own
• Mix 4 oz. of powdered brown sugar and 10 oz. of powdered sticky rice.
• Add 8 oz. of water by adding 2-3 oz. at a time and knead the dough time until it feels as soft as an earlobe.
• Cut the dough into small pieces so that each fits a galingale leaf. Wrap each one with the leaf and tie it with a string. (The leaves need to be washed and dried beforehand)
• Steam the wrapped dough for 30 to 40 minutes.