In Japan where people enjoy the change of seasons throughout the year, we celebrate "Shunbun no hi (Vernal Equinox Day)" that marks the beginning of spring.
Vernal equinox day is a national holiday in Japan. We celebrate ohigan that takes place three days before and after vernal equinox day. Ohigan is a time for honoring our ancestors by visiting family's graves or cleaning up our butsudan (small Buddhist altar for home) and its equipment. We also eat botamochi (ohagi), a special ohigan food.
Here we will develop more about what ohigan is and share a botamochi recipe for you to try at home.
The product we used:
What is Ohigan?
Ohigan starts three days prior to shunbun no hi (spring equinox day) and continues until three days after.
It is celebrated twice a year: one in March (spring higan) and one in September (fall higan).
In the Japanese Buddhist ancient tradition, the spring and autumn equinoxes are considered as the day when the distance between the world of living and the world of the dead is the closest. Since the spirits of our ancestors come back to the world of living during ohigan, we dedicate this time to honor our ancestors by visiting family's graves and cleaning them. If we don't have time to visit the grave, we clean our butsudan, a small Buddhist altar that we display at home instead.
Because it is customary to give botamochi (sweet rice balls) as offerings to our ancestors, it has become a popular ohigan food.
Ohigan and Botamochi
There are several theories on why we give botamochi as offerings for our ancestors. According to one of the theories, the red bean paste used in botamochi has a power to ward off evil spirits, making sure our ancestors can cross the two worlds safely.
Mochi rice, another ingredient of botamochi, is also considered as something that keeps evil spirits off. As you can see, botamochi is a perfect food that keeps away evil spirits.
How to make Botamochi
Now we will explain to you how to make botamochi.
Ingredients（for 5-6 pieces）
- Mochi rice (glutinous rice)… 80g
- Hot water … 40ml
- Salt … 1 pinch
- Azuki red bean paste (smooth)… 150g
Botamochi and ohagi are both made of mochi rice covered with azuki red bean paste. During the spring higan, we eat botamochi - mochi rice balls covered with smooth red bean paste. During the fall higan, on the other hand, we eat ohagi - mochi rice balls covered with chunky mashed red bean paste.
The only difference between botamochi and ohagi is the way azuki red beans are prepared: smooth or mashed. In fact, it has a historical explanation for the difference related to the period during which azuki beans are harvested. In autumn, the outer layer of azuki beans was soft, so we could easily mash them. However, azuki beans harvested during spring had a hard and inedible outer layer, forcing us to remove it and eat only the inside. That's why azuki bean paste is smooth during spring.
Today the quality of azuki beans and the technology for stocking have improved, so we can enjoy mashed azuki beans all year long.
1. Soak the rice
First, soak the pre-washed mochi rice in plenty of water (not included in ingredients).
Wash the mochi rice gently as its grains are fragile and break easily.
Soak it for 2 to 24 hours.
You can enjoy a softer and tasty texture if you soak it longer.
After the mochi rice is soaked well, drain the water with a strainer. Leave it for about 5 minutes to remove the water completely.
2. Steam the rice
Set up a steamer and bring the water to a boil. Place the drained mochi rice in the steamer and steam it.
Steam the rice in medium heat for about 20 minutes.
Spread out the rice well, so that heat would spread evenly.
3. Soak the rice in hot water
Place the steamed rice in a mixing bowl. Add hot water to it and leave it for about 5 minutes. This extra step will make the rice softer and stickier in texture.
4. Steam the rice again
Place back the mochi rice in the steamer and steam it again in medium heat for about 10 more minutes.
5. Pound the rice
Place the steamed rice in a suribachi mortar. Pound or mash it with a surikogi pestle.
No need to mash it completely. Pound it partially to leave some rice texture.
6. Pre-measure azuki bean paste
Pre-measure azuki red bean paste into 20 to 30g portions. If you want to make small sized botamochi, take a smaller portion of red bean paste. If you want to enjoy bigger pieces, take a larger portion.
7. Coat the rice with azuki bean paste
Spread the portioned azuki bean paste on one hand. Place a hand-size portion of mochi rice on it and coat the rice with the paste. After you shape them in a nice oval shape, they are ready for serving. No need to coat the bottom part of botamochi with the red bean paste since we can't see it.
It is common to eat them with "kuromoji" food picks made of Spicebush (also known as Lindera umbellata). With a pick, we can slice botamochi in a bite-size piece and eat it elegantly.
Kuromoji picks are indispensable to Japanese traditional food culture, especially during a tea ceremony in which we enjoy Japanese sweets. If you love eating Japanese sweets, we recommend you to have these picks at home. You can enjoy delicious sweets with elegance.
Enjoy Japanese sweets during Ohigan!
As you can see, the traditional Japanese ohigan food, botamochi, is not so difficult to make.
We hope you would like to spend this spring ohigan with your family, eating home-made botamochi, during the three days before and after the vernal equinox day. It is also a great period for remembering the deceased, cherishing animals and plants and appreciating mother nature.