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Imagine you are a lumberjack working in the forest high in the Japanese mountains during the middle of winter. Every day the meager bit of rice and miso paste that was warm when you left the house in the morning is frozen cold by the time you want to eat it, and yet you have no cooking utensils. Since you are a lumberjack, however, you have access to all the trees you want-so you whittle a long, flat stick, pat your rice onto it, and cook it over an open fire. You put the miso paste on it after it gets warm and eat them both together. Little did you know that this meal you had just concocted would be loved by generations to come and become a delicacy in your region of Japan.
This is one explanation for the origin of gohei-mochi, an extremely simple and yet delectable dish that can be found throughout the Mikawa (central and eastern Aichi) area. An old man who runs a traditional inn in the village of Shimoyama insists that this legend is the most feasible explanation for the origin and name of gohei-mochi-it was named after the lumberjack who first made it, Gohei. The second and more widely known explanation for this "rice on a stick" is that it was first made to be offered to the gods (and is still thus offered during the annual mountain ko festivals in the Mikawa area) and takes its name from the fact that it looks like a gohei, a staff with white strips of paper that Shinto priests use in their rituals.
Although called gohei-mochi, it is not made with the rice that is normally used to make mochi, soft rice cakes used in sweets. Gohei-mochi is made with normal white rice that is just a bit on the stiff side. It is then worked together for a while until it has a mochi-like soft and sticky consistency. Unlike actual mochi, the texture of hand-made gohei-mochi in your mouth is not at all smooth. Being able to sense the small pieces of the individual grains of rice in your mouth that are at the same time both smooth and chewy is one of the great charms of this simple meal.
Gohei-mochi was originally placed on the stick by holding the stick between one's knees or feet while sitting on the floor and then patting the rice onto the stick. It is important that the rice be attached a bit thicker near the stick so it does not fall off while cooking. Nowadays, molds for properly-shaped gohei-mochi are available throughout the Mikawa area.
The most popular topping for the rice continues to be miso paste mixed with sugar (although a soy-based sauce is used in northeastern Mikawa). It is very important, however, that the miso be a rich, dark variety that is native to Aichi-the only kind that true Mikawans ever use. The flavor of the miso topping varies by household, since there are no set rules for making it. Some families may add things such as leeks, ginger, sesame seeds, or even bee larvae to the topping as an extra flavoring.
Although it can be purchased at many roadside shops, gohei-mochi is still made at home by many families in the area. Even though it is so very simple, it has become a special treat and is often served to out-of-town guests as a gourmet meal. If only that old lumberjack Gohei knew what he had started!
(Photos by Kiyoshi Inoue, Text by Doria Ransom)