Mochi at Amaneya sweet shop in Himeji, Japan, on Jan. 23, 2014
Buddhika Weerasinghe—Getty Images
By Naina Bajekal
January 5, 2015

Mochi, a traditional New Year’s food in Japan, has made headlines again this year after it apparently led nine people to die from choking.

A chewy cake made from pounded rice, mochi is eaten year-round in Japan, though is traditionally food for New Year, devoured in large quantities in a vegetable broth, or roasted and coated with sugar and soy flour.

The glutinous texture of mochi means it can become lodged in people’s throats and lead to suffocation. This New Year, local media reported nine people died from accidental choking, up from two deaths the previous year; 13 others remain in a serious condition.

Each year before the New Year’s festivities, Japan’s fire and police departments advise people, particularly children and the elderly, to divide the rice cakes into very small chunks before eating them and to do so in the presence of others.

According to the Guardian, one company in the city of Osaka is using an enzyme to make mochi less sticky and easier to swallow. The country’s food-safety commission found in 2010 that mochi was the food most often involved in choking incidents, with over 80% of victims ages 65 or above.

Write to Naina Bajekal at naina.bajekal@time.com.

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