The full harvest moon of autumn is rising huge over the horizon these days. Last night, September 11 in the U.S., was technically the full moon, but the nights just before and after are filled with moonlight, too. Japan and other Asian nations (China, Taiwan, Vietnam) celebrate this harvest moon, which usually falls in mid-September, but every few years in October. Of course, other cultures celebrate the harvest moon, but Japan and China in particular enjoy the ethereal and artistic quality of the moon, especially the full moon. They eat special celebratory foods and sit together outside admiring the beauty of the big moon. The Chinese see a lady in the moon, the Japanese see a rabbit pounding mochi rice cakes (actually, gooey rice patties).
Last night I made the traditional Japanese “dango” rice balls for the first time ever and served them with mitarashi, a sweetened and thickened soy sauce. The dango are used as decoration also, as are other round (full-moon-shaped) foods such as oranges. The Japanese also use 5 or 7 stems (lucky numbers) of grass seedheads – pampas grass is a favorite — and perhaps some fall flowers to complete the table arrangement. They enjoy eating and drinking sake, having a party under the lovely full moon. Of course, the full moon is also romantic, so lovers may enjoy strolling arm-in-arm through the moonlight. My youngest daughter and I sat outside on the front porch eating dango-on-a-stick, dipped in sauce.
I probably would never have known about this celebration had my mother not told me the story. I wrote it into her memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, so our family would not forget. My Japanese friends here in the Midwest do not celebrate Moon Viewing, although most know about it from their childhood. I am grateful to my mother for making my life richer with her stories.
1 cup rice flour
1/2 cup mochiko (sweet, or glutinous rice flour)
Add just enough hot (but not boiling) water to make a dough, stirring with a fork. Knead with rice-floured hands until smooth. Add more water or rice flour as needed. Make into small balls (1-inch diameter). Place in a pot of boiling water with a pinch of salt in it. When the dango rise to the top, cook a few minutes longer. Remove dango and plunge into a cold water bath. Skewer 3 or more per bamboo stick. Put a skewer on a pretty plate and spoon mitarashi sauce over. (Plain soy sauce can be used instead, just as for mochi rice cakes.)
*This is a small recipe. Dango feature in other Japanese festivals, and are often colored or flavored, but Tsukimi dango are made white as the moon.
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup sugar (or slightly less to taste) mixed with 1 Tbsp corn or potato starch
1/8 cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp mirin
Simmer in a saucepan until sugar dissolves and sauce thickens. Remove from heat.
“Cherry Blossoms in Twilight”