Mochi and Tamales in Los Angeles

From top-left: Obon Festival food sign; tamales; tacos; Okinawan dango (donuts); and chirashi rice (sushi rice with mixed toppings). Photos courtesy Mary Yogi.

By Mary Yogi, guest blogger

This blog is part of the Gourmet Intersections program of Intersections as American Life: the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival 2013.

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, my family’s “To Do” list:

  • Wash and soak 200 pounds of rice.
  • Make enchiladas.
  • Roll sushi.
  • Peel and chop tomatillos and green chiles and cook with pork.
  • Press hot rice onto seaweed and top it with America’s favorite canned meat to make Spam musubi.
  • Steam tamales.
  • Gather all my relatives together to cook and pound the rice into mochi.

Every year since 1950, my Japanese American family has gathered in Los Angeles before New Year’s Day to make mochi – pounded rice cakes. Toasted mochi are placed in soup called ozoni on New Year’s Day to bring a year of good luck.

While mochi is a Japanese food, our potluck lunch is certainly a reflection of a fusion life in Los Angeles. The Japanese American community grew up next to many other immigrant communities, which is how our food cultures naturally came together. The buffet at our holiday gathering is filled with Latino foods such as enchiladas, tamales, pork with tomatillo, and green chiles from New Mexico along with sushi and chirashi rice.

As a child, I remember making homemade tamales with my family. My father, a Nisei (second generation Japanese American), was a mechanic in Los Angeles and worked with many Mexican Americans. My father loves Mexican food and learned to make tamales from his co-workers. I have fond memories of soaking corn husks in our kitchen and unwrapping tamales for dinner. It is then served with Japanese rice, since my mom always had plain white rice ready.

The intersection of food cultures is also reflected at obon summer festivals held at Buddhist temples in Los Angeles, and all over the United States.  Obon is acknowledged annually to show respect for one’s ancestors. My friend describes it as a Buddhist Dia de los Muertos. Even beyond the similarities of honoring departed ancestors, the obon festivals in the greater Los Angeles area offer some of the same foods that are enjoyed at Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Next to booths selling homemade sushi, Okinawan fried donuts, and bowls of Japanese noodles, you’ll often find tamales and tacos, as well as the Japanese, Latin, Hawaiian and American food cultural mash-up of chili rice and chili topped tamales.

Just thinking about obon festivals and my family’s annual mochi making day and potluck make me hungry. The combination of Japanese and Mexican food together is a taste treat I will always treasure.

More about our guest blogger:

Mary Yogi is a public librarian and food blogger in her native Los Angeles. A third generation Japanese American, you can find her writing about her baking and eating on The Food Librarian.


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