Bitter Herb an Important Component of Traditional Japanese Spring Sweet- KUSA MOCHI (草餅)
By Avi Landau
In Tsukuba, as the days grow longer, here and there, slim shafts of greenery begin pushing up out from the snowless, brown, gray and straw-colored winterscape, giving us relieved assurance that once again spring has come. It is in this time of year that many Japanese can be seen scouring the roadside, field edges or riverbanks, as if looking for some lost object.
In fact, these people are searching for yomogi (蓬), a wild herb which is gathered to make this season’s most representative sweet – kusamochi (草餅), a distinctly green-hued (perfect for St Paddy’s Day!) mochi-rice cake, sometimes filled with anko-sweet bean paste, or covered with kinako-soy bean powder.
Since yomogi (mugwort in English, though that word does NOT sound very appetizing), becomes inedibly tough quite soon after sprouting up, it has to be gathered when still very small, young and fresh. (I remember doing this years ago, for the first time, in the field behind the Tsukuba Central Police Station!) The herb is then boiled to make it less bitter, and then mixed into mochi (pounded rice cakes) and molded into small roundish patties. This gives the mochi a slightly bitter and grassy taste.
It is because of this flavor that the custom of eating KUSAMOCHI first began back in ancient China, where bitter grasses were believed to be effective in expelling from the body impurities and evil spirits. This notion was imported to Japan in the Heian Period (794-1192) though a different type of herb was used as the most common ingredient (母子草 hahakogusa or gogyou). It was only in the Edo Period (1601-1868) that yomogi became the distinctive component of KUSAMOCHI.
In the present age kusamochi is also available at most convenient stores in this season and can of course be found at wagashiya (Japanese sweet shops). I had one today. Why don’t you enjoy the season and the tradition and try some for yourself !
For more of my postings on this time of year in Tsukuba and Japan: