A popular confectionery around the New Year’s season in Japan is mochi. Mochi is often translated to “rice cake” but is nothing like the Styrofoam discs of the same name that are popular in some countries and doesn’t really resemble a cake at all. It can either be more like a soft “rice gummy”, usually stuffed with sugary foods like sweet beans, strawberry, or even ice cream; or like a “condensed rice block”, which is often basted in soy sauce, grilled, and wrapped in seaweed.
Mochi is made by whacking rice in a tub repeatedly with a giant wooden mallet, a fun but tiring holiday festivity. During New Year’s mochi is sold in a small snowman like configuration called kagami mochi (pictured above) which serves as a decoration until it is eaten after 1 January.
While all of this sounds fun, mochi has a dark side as well – one that foreigners who try it for the first time often realize quickly: It’s chewy, sticky, and really hard to eat.
And if you’re not careful, this little snack could land you in the ER.
According to the Tokyo Fire Department reports (in Japan the fire department runs the ambulance services) that incidents involving choking on mochi led to the deaths of two men and the hospitalization of 15 other men and women in the area.
Mochi has a very mild sweetness to it that makes it especially appealing to older people in Japan. Of the 2013 New Year’s choking non-fatalities; one was in their 90’s, eight in their 80’s, three in their 70’s, and three in their 60’s.
On 1 January, a 68 year-old man in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo was taken to hospital after choking on mochi he was eating in his home. He died shortly after.
The next day in nearby Suginami, an 83 year-old man who was eating homemade mochi died after falling unconscious from asphyxiation.
If you’re ever celebrating New Year’s Day in Japan, you may want to skip the mochi. It’s not really that good, and if you’re the type who inhales their food, it could prove fatal. Have some kamaboko (fish cake/gummy) instead.
It’s not so sweet but more savory, prettier, easier to eat, and less dangerous.
But if you simply must eat some mochi, remember what your mother taught you and chew your food thoroughly before swallowing. It may save your life.
▼ The traditional way of making mochi can be much more dangerous than eating it. (The fun starts at around :40)