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Published: Tuesday December 31, 2013 MYT 10:50:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday December 31, 2013 MYT 11:14:59 AM

Japan confronts mochi rice-cake death-trap

A Japanese food manufacturer has come up with mochi rice cakes that are easy to swallow. - Filepic

A Japanese food manufacturer has come up with mochi rice cakes that are easy to swallow. - Filepic

Safer recipe promised for traditional new year glutinous rice cakes that regularly take the lives of elderly people.

A company in Japan believes it has the antidote to an unlikely health risk facing tens of millions of senior citizens hoping to ring in 2014 by eating traditional New Year’s cuisine – safe-to-swallow rice cakes.

Mochi – glutinous cakes of pounded rice – kill several people in Japan each January after they become lodged in the throats of their mainly elderly victims.

Eager to keep the death toll as low as possible over the first few days of the New Year, when mochi are traditionally eaten in vast quantities, a firm in Osaka recently unveiled a safer alternative.

Fukunao Medical Foods says its mochi rice cakes form part of easy-to-swallow new year feasts the company has made available for pre-order, the Japan Times reported.

Other companies have followed suit in an attempt to corner Japan’s huge population of elderly people, for whom chewing on an innocent-looking mochi can mean taking their lives in their hands.

Five traditional confectionery firms in Kyoto say their “safe” mochi include an enzyme that makes them less sticky, while retaining their familiar starchy taste.

The product won’t be ready until next year, but the confectioners say they are encouraged by tasting sessions held this year.

“It still has the flavour of sticky rice, but without the firmness,” Takahiro Ueda, one of the firms involved, told the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

Last new year, two deaths were reported from choking on sticky rice cakes and a further 15 people were rushed to hospital in mochi-related incidents. In 2011, at least eight people died, most of whom were over 70, and another 18 were taken to hospital. Between 2006 and 2009, 18 people died from mochi choking in Tokyo alone, according to fire department figures.

Every year emergency services remind people of all ages to cut their mochi into bite-sized pieces before eating them, to chew each morsel into submission before attempting to swallow, and never to eat them alone.

In 2010, Japan’s food safety commission ranked mochi among the top causes of food-related choking incidents, and found that more than 80% of victims were elderly.

Methods for dislodging trapped mochi include a sharp slap on the back, the Heimlich manoeuvre and – a less conventional method that makes an appearance in the 1985 Juzo Itami film Tampopo – sucking it out with a vacuum-cleaner pipe.

One medical equipment firm sells a nozzle to be attached to a vacuum cleaner, which it claims can remove the offending piece of rice cake without damaging the victim’s throat.

Mochi are often served in sweet or savoury soup, but can also be toasted and eaten with sweetened soya sauce and wrapped in sheets of dried seaweed.

Though ubiquitous in supermarkets, many people make their own at year-end neighbourhood events, where steamed white rice is placed in a large mortar and residents take time to pound it until it becomes a viscous - and potentially lethal - white blob.

Japanese people consume an average of 1kg of mochi a year each, mostly during the first week of January, according to the mochi trade association. – Guardian News & Media

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, mochi, Japanese rice cakes, health risk, elderly

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