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Pounded rice may be delicious, but it can be incredibly risky—especially in our current circumstances.

The pounded mochi rice cake is a staple of Japanese New Year. You can find mochi in several osechi dishes traditionally eaten over the period. Every meal in an osechi spread has an auspicious meaning for the coming year: glossy kuromame black beans represent protection against evil spirits, and the golden color of kuri-kinton, or mashed chestnuts, is said to invite good luck with money. Mochi stars in ozoni rice cake soup, which used to be the main osechi dish and the luckiest of all. You can also find mochi in the traditional kagami-mochi cake, which has two round orbs of mochi topped with a mandarin.

Despite its reputation as a New Year item and a portent of good luck in the coming year, there is a dark side to mochi. Every year there are awareness initiatives spread to ensure people know that they should cut their mochi into small pieces and chew thoroughly before swallowing it. This was of particular concern this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to fill beds at hospitals and lower the likelihood that people with other medical emergencies can be addressed in a prompt manner.

Unfortunately the same was true of January 2022. The Tokyo Fire Department reported 19 hospital admissions of individuals aged from 38 to 100 years old, four of which ended in death, as of the end of the New Year’s holiday period on January 3. All four of the women who died were in their 80s.

As people age and their muscles weaken, it can be difficult to swallow the mochi, and once it swells halfway down the throat it can block the airways and result in suffocation. This is why it’s vital to cut mochi into …continue reading