Beware the Killer Mochi

Photo: Mochi, © Wendy Wallace, Let the dog in!

In my New Year’s post, I mentioned the Japanese tales about rabbits making mochi (and the rabbit in the moon). Interestingly, there have been a rash of news items lately about mochi-related deaths. As one article put it, “Every New Year’s Day, a small number of Japanese stop abruptly in the middle of supper, keel over, and die.” Apparently, while sitting down to a traditional bowl of hot soup with mochi, these people choke on the chewy and elastic substance, which resists being chewed into smaller pieces. In Tokyo, 30 people were hospitalized, and 13 deaths have been reported around the country. Most of the victims were elderly.

If you happen to see someone choking on mochi, you should immediately call for help. Until the help arrives, you can try to remove the mochi by hand (if it’s visible) or pound the person on the back to help them cough it up. I’ve seen multiple sources recommending that you put the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner in the victim’s mouth to try to remove the mochi, but I don’t know how legit this is. Sounds terrifying.

Despite these problems, however, I doubt that mochi consumption will decrease any time soon. 37 injuries/fatalities is a fairly small number when you consider the millions that probably consume mochi dishes every New Year’s. And mochi is a huge part of Japanese traditonal culture. Although you can pick up mochi from any local supermarket these days, it was traditionally made from whole rice in a traditional ceremony called “mochitsuki” where cooked rice was intermittently pounded with wooden mallets, wetted and turned by two people. Here’s a set of shots from a mochitsuki:

Photo: Mochitsuki, © Adrienne Gunde Photography

Photo: Mochitsuki, © ivva

The resultant sticky mass can then be formed into various shapes and roasted, put into soups or incorporated into a number of kinds of confections with cream, fruit, or ice cream fillings. It may look a little funny, and it’s a bit perplexing the first time you have it, but I absolutely I love mochi (especially in ice cream form):

Photo: Mochi Cream from Cafe Comme Ca Ism, © The Traveling Hungry Boy

Photo: Mochi Ice Cream, ©

So basically, I don’t think that a tiny risk of death is going to stop people from eating this tasty treat (especially in a country that embraces so many other hazardous foods). But make sure to take care and chew your mochi well!

End public service announcement.