It all started with a phone call from my grandma last night.
I’m a letter writer and I don’t really like phone calls. But my grandma likes to call me because it’s much easier than writing a letter and going through the whole stamp and post office thing. So we have this routine where I write letters and send pictures to her, and she calls to say she got it.
Well, I got a call last night and our chat about food reminded me that I still hadn’t posted my photos of the mu-chi we ate in Okinawa last year!
So here it goes…
Mu-chi is the Okinawan dialect for the Japanese word mochi, which is known as rice cake in English. Although made slightly different from the mainland mochi, mu-chi is traditionally made on December 8th of the old lunar calendar in Okinawa. It’s said to be one of the coldest times of the year (although not THAT cold because hey…it’s Okinawa!). Many people eat mu-chi to pray for good health and ward off evil spirits on this special day, often together with family and relatives.
I never really knew why Okinawa had this tradition until the ever resourceful Ru sent me this tweet:
You can click on the link above and read the story (in Japanese) but it tells the legend behind the tradition of eating mu-chi in Okinawa. For the English readers, here’s the short story:
Long time ago, in the land near Shuri Castle lived a brother with a younger sister. They always got along very well until one frightful day the older brother suddenly turned into an Oni and began attacking villagers and their livestock.Realizing something must be done to stop him, the younger sister devised a plan. She made his favorite food, mu-chi, but included a piece of iron in his. She called over her brother/Oni to the side of a cliff to eat together and enjoy the view. But because his mu-chi had the piece of iron in it, he could not chew on it, no matter how hard he tried. All the while his sister is munching on her mu-chi and enjoying it.
The brother/Oni could not understand why he couldn’t eat his mu-chi. His eyes then went to her lower body and he demanded to know what what going on with her “mouth” down there. She in turn lifted her kimono and closed in on her brother/Oni saying, “My mouth up here is for eating mu-chi…and my “mouth” down there is for eating Oni!”
This outburst surprised the brother/Oni so much so that he stumbled off the cliff and died. The younger sister was hailed a hero by the villagers on this very day, December 8th, and would be forever known as a day to ward off evil spirits.
As legends go, there are many different variations of this story. Some include more details about how the brother became an oni. Some say the younger sister already had children and they were almost eaten by her brother/Oni when they tried to help.
And obviously in the more censored version for children, the part about the lower “mouth” is left out and the brother/Oni falls to his death by the sister pushing him or just falling from the surprise of not being able to eat his favorite mu-chi.
I found myself laughing just a little over this legend, not because of the “mouth” bit, but because of how both the male and female are portrayed in this story. The wild uncontrollable male and the strong smart female. I know it’s an island stereotype. But I feel like there is some truth in how many women are seen as stronger than men in Okinawa. The ones that hold down the fort.
Am I the only one who sees this?
The long dark green leaves in the back (left side of the photo) is the Gettoh plant.
Anyways, back to mu-chi…they typically look like the photo above, wrapped in gettoh leaves.
My grandma tells me that gettoh (also known as Shell Ginger) is a plant that many people have growing in their yards in Okinawa. These leaves are also sold in supermarkets by the dozen around January, which is when December 8th was on the lunar calendar.
Mu-chi is made from mochi powder, sugar, and water. It’s a simple recipe. Some add flavors like kokuto (muscovado) or beni-imo (purple yam) into the ingredients. Once mixed, they are rolled into balls, flattened onto a gettoh leaf, wrapped, and tied with a string. They are then steamed together for about 30 minutes and that’s it!
It is one of my favorite Okinawan treats and my grandma makes it for us every time we visit. The beni-imo flavor (above) is my favorite. I am already counting down the days until I’m back in Okinawa and eating mu-chi...yum yum!
I hope this gives you an idea of what mu-chi is. If you’ve never had a taste of it before, don’t you want to try it now? x
The pretty gettoh flower in my grandma’s yard.