Each New Year, dozens of Japanese (usually elderly) are hospitalized from choking on glutinous mochi. In January 2007, the Japan Times reported the deaths of four men. Sixteen other people were taken to the hospital.
It’s all too tempting to sink one’s teeth into a soft, round pillow of mochi floating in a warm, fragrant liquid, or to bite into a crisp, hot rectangle of mochi right off the grill, freshly dipped in kinako. But some mochi enthusiasts forget that after that initial mouthful, they need to pay attention to what they’re eating in order to safely get the sticky mass down.
Japanese food writer Emi Kazuko recommends a cautious approach. “Just bite a small piece at a time, and don’t chew it much,” advises Kazuko, author of the award-winning Japanese Food and Cooking. “Just once or twice, then swallow.”
And if your appetite overrules good sense? Your Health Encyclopedia (Japanese-language only), a leading Japanese online medical reference, says that sucking out stuck mochi using a vacuum cleaner (as seen famously in Tampopo) is actually an effective way to remove the offending rice cake. Because mochi is so sticky, the Heimlich maneuver doesn’t work very well. —Tara Shioya