[From the archives: Today (September 23rd) is the first day of the fall o-higan (お彼岸), when ohagi or botamochi are offered to ones ancestors, as well as oneself! My mother and my grandmother always made these at home around this time of year - I love their not-too-sweet stickiness. O-higan ends on the 26th, so if you like wagashi, why not give these a try? Originally published March 2007.]
The seven days centered around the bi-annual days of the vernal equinox is a Buddhist festival period known as higan (or o-higan for the honorific term) in Japan. The fall (autumn) higan is aki no higan, and the spring higan is haru no higan. Since the day of the spring equinox is March 21, we’re about to enter the haru no ohigan period.
During haru no higan, a sweet confection called botamochi is eaten. The mochi part means sticky, pounded rice, and the bota part comes from botan, or the tree peony. Botamochi is supposed to ressemble a tree peony flower.
During the autumn equinox (aki no higan or simply (o)higan)) period, a very similar confection called ohagi is eaten. This is supposed to look like a hagi or bush clover flower (Latin: Lespedeza thunbergii). Botamochi and o-hagi look the same to me, even though a hagi flower looks nothing like a tree peony flower, but the good old ancestors were probably a lot more imaginative than I am.
Botamochi and o-hagi are made of sticky rice and sweet tsubuan , ‘chunky-style’ sweet azuki bean paste. They are a bit fiddly to make but not difficult, especially if you use one of my favorite cooking helpers, plastic cling film. Since these are best eaten freshly made, it’s well worth the effort to make them at home if you like bean-based Japanese sweets. You can adjust the amount of sugar in the tsubuan to your taste. Here I have made three variations: coated with black sesame seeds; coated with kinako (toasted soy bean powder); and the most traditional form with the rice cake wrapped in a layer of the tsubuan.
By ‘cup’ here I mean the measuring cup that comes with a rice cooker, which has a capacity of 180ml. As long as you keep the same proportions you can use larger (e.g. American size, which is about 220ml) cups too.
For the mochi part:
The kurogoma or black sesame coating:
The kinako coating:
pinch of salt
Extra water for forming the dumplings
The day before, wash the rice well, and wash and sort the azuki beans. Soak the azuki beans and the rice (separately) in enough water to cover, overnight or at least 8 hours. Drain well.
Make the tsubuan following these directions .
Cook the rice in a rice cooker in the normal way, with the indicated amount of water for 3 cups of regular rice.
In the meantime, toast the sesame seeds in a small frying pan until the seeds begin to pop. Remove from the pan into another bowl and mix well with the sugar and salt.
Mix together the kinako and the sugar and salt in another bowl.
While the rice is still warm not not burning hot anymore, put it in a large ziplock plastic bag. Close the zip, pushing out as much air as possible. Pound the rice and squeeze it and knead it until it’s sort of half-crushed (it’s mostly paste but you can still see some rice grains in there). This state is called hantsuki, or half-beaten, mochi. Let cool a bit in the bag.
Divide the mochi into 24 or so equal pieces.
To make the kinako-coated dumpling: flatten a piece of mochi on a sheet of plastic wrap, trying to make the edges a bit thinner than the middle, with moistened fingers. Put a teaspoonful or so of tsubuan in the middle. Carefully gather up the mochi around the filling (just like you’d do with onigiri ) to form a sort of oval-shaped ball, completely enclosing the tsubuan filling. (This oval shape is called tawara-gata, or rice bale shape.) Roll the dumpling well in the kinako-mix. You may need to roll it 2 or 3 times since the kinako tends to sink in to the rice.
Make the sesame coated dumplings in the same way. To make the sesame stick better you may need to lightly moisten the surface of the dumpling.
To make the tsubuan-coated dumplings, make a small oval-shaped ball with the mochi. Spread some tsubuan on a piece of plastic wrap, and gather up the plastic to make a ball. If the dumpling looks funny you can adjust it a bit after unwrapping it from the plastic wrap.
Serve with green tea, preferably while gazing at some beautiful spring (or fall) scenery.
In the photo at the top, I’ve presented the botamochi in a lacqured black wooden box. In the second picture the dumplings are on a black ceramic plate. Black seems to suit these better than white.
The traditional way of making this half-beaten mochi is to grind it in a suribachi , but the pounding on the plastic bag method is much easier, requires no cleanup and lets out your aggressions. (Web developers: imagine it’s a difficult client’s face and punch away.)
These do not keep well in the refrigerator since the rice hardens up, so keep in a cool place until it’s time to eat them. They can be frozen successfully though: just wrap them individually in plastic wrap, and defrost at room temperature or nuke in the microwave for about a minute per dumpling (depending on the wattage of your microwave).
I find that adding a bit more salt to the tsubuan for this makes the dumplings tastier.