Deadly Tradition: 9 Choke To Death On Traditional New Year’s Sweet

New Year’s Eve has many food traditions. Champagne, black-eyed peas, thick noodles, greens, fruits– even shrimp. In Japan, one of the traditions is the consumption of mochi–a sticky, sweet rice cake that comes wrapped in seaweed with a side of sweet soy sauce. Mochi is also served in a hot soup called ozoni for the traditional New Year breakfast.

The colorful sweets delight both young and old, but can be deadly.

CBS News reports that at least nine people have reportedly choked to death on New Year’s rice cakes in Japan.

Mochi is made by steaming glutinous or sweet rice flour with sugar, coconut milk and condensed milk. The mixture is then pounded in a very large mortar. The cakes are eaten in large quantities over the holidays.

As custom, Japanese visit shrines, temples and other religious centers to welcome the start of the new year. Mochi, ozoni, sake and other treats are sold or given out. In fact, Japanese people consume an average of 1kg of mochi a year, with the greatest consumption being in January.

Caption CBS Naked men in loinclothes pound steamed rice into a mochi (rice cakes) to celebrate the New Year at the Kanda shrine in Tokyo on January 1, 2015.

The mochi is an essential part of the New Year’s menu. Unfortunately, several people die or are injured eating it every January. The starchy cake can get stuck in people’s throats, blocking breathing. Last year, four people died as a result of choking on mochi, but this year the number is particularly high.

The risk of choking on mochi is highest among the elderly as swallowing the cakes is difficult due to it’s consistency.

mochi buzzfeed

The Yomiuri newspaper reported Friday that at least 128 people were rushed to hospitals after choking on mochi, with nine dying. In addition to the Tokyo deaths, three people died in Chiba prefecture, while one each died in Osaka, Aomori and Nagasaki prefectures, the Yomiuri reported.

As a response to the high incidence of choking, the Tokyo Fire Department set up a website with tips on how to prevent and assist someone who may be choking on the rice cakes. Methods include a sharp slap on the back, the Heimlich maneuver and, as featured in Juzo Itami’s film Tampopo – sucking it out with a vacuum cleaner pipe.

Well, maybe not the last one, but the issue is serious enough that there is a call for modifying the method of manufacturing mochi as the population of Japan is aging.

How can one enjoy this traditional food? The common advice is to eat the rice cake slowly and in small bites. Use caution when eating mochi and never eat mochi alone. Young children, the elderly or anyone who has difficulty chewing and swallowing are advised to abstain from the New Year’s delicacy.

Read more New Year’s related stories here.