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By Kara Nelson. November 20, 2013 - 9:05 am
The Two Ladies Kitchen in downtown Hilo boasts the “Best Mochi,” according to Hawaiian Airlines. I by to try the strawberry mochi — a “confectionary masterpiece” as a student once called it at UH-Hilo.
The place was busy. People were picking up special orders of mochi. Waiting in line was suffering everyone joyfully endured for the sake of these tasty confections.
The bakery’s interesting decorations also help pass the time: good luck cats, frog figures, colorful lanterns and butterflies hanging from the ceiling, and a strawberry vine around the screened window where you can see workers preparing mochi in the back kitchen.
When I finally tried the strawberry mochi it was absolute bliss: a big, juicy whole strawberry covered with a bit of adzuki bean paste and then blanketed in mochi dough: Sweet, juicy, and delicious. It is worth every penny of the $2.75 price, especially after I learned all the work that goes into preparing mochi at Two Ladies Kitchen.
I went in the middle of another afternoon when it was quieter, but the place is by no means free from customers for long.
An employee offered samples of strawberry mochi and grape mochi to the waiting customers. I tried the grape mochi, which had a whole grape in the middle.
The owner Nora Uchida spends her time in the back kitchen; she and her other employees hurriedly worked to fulfill orders and prepare assortment boxes for sale at the counter.
Uchida has run the kitchen for almost 20 years.
She opened the shop with her aunt, Tomi Tokeshi, who worked with her for 3-5 years.
According to Uchida, it was Tokeshi who “taught me the art of mochi.”
In turn, her’s aunt had learned to make mochi from her’s grandmother.
Two Ladies Kitchen creates mochi, butter mochi, and manju using only family recipes.
All their products are hand-made and homemade, using no machines.
For example, for sweet potato manju, they have to “peel, cut, steam, and process” the sweet potato, before, “then we can use it,” Uchida said.
It takes time and labor, as they “try to make everything fresh.”
Uchida also tries to use local ingredients as much as she can.
She gets the strawberries from Waimea or Maui whenever possible, instead of ordering mainland strawberries. She gets poha berries from a farmer in Waimea.
They also make their own adzuki bean paste from scratch. I witnessed two huge pots with adzuki beans in various stages of the process. Uchida said they make 40 pounds of the bean paste every day.
She told me that mochi is “all purpose,” as it is used for good luck in weddings, Boy’s Day, and Girls Day. Different colors also have different meanings.
She told me that mochi is “very spiritual” in Buddhism. It is often ordered for funerals.
Mochi offers nourishment for the deceased, that as the living eat the mochi, it allows the deceased to ascend levels in the afterlife, she explained.
As Uchida also said the demographic has changed in mochi consumption.
Although their mochi has a “contemporary look,” they make mochi in the “traditional” sense.
According to their menu, the kitchen “celebrates the different seasons with original creations to surprise and delight our customers.”
The traditional mochi is made for the older generation, but Uchida said she encourages the students who work for her to come up with new ideas and shapes to give their work a more contemporary look.
One of their most popular items is “baby mochi,” which are small round balls of colored mochi with candy centers of whoppers, cookies and cream, and other chocolate candies.
Uchida said it is “tedious” to make these, taking a whole day to make, but it “flies off the counter” when put out front for sale.
I sampled their newest mochi which has a poha (Chinese lantern) berry in the center, giving the taste buds a burst of sweet and tart. While this is a new creation,
New creations goes through “a lot of testing” before it reaches customers.
They learn how the products keep before spoiling, what temperature the customers need to keep the mochi at, and how the ingredients need to be stored by the kitchen. It’s work, but Uchida said it’s “fun to experiment” and making new creations. And the newest mochi she is creating is a ginger mochi.
Uchida has put a lot of thought and effort into her business. She is there everyday, even when the shop is not open. And she reaps the rewards of her diligence.
She said her workers and employees are really the “key.” She hires all college students who “go in and out” and gets additional help from “retirees from all difference fields.”
“It’s a family thing,” Uchida said. The girls who work with her are like daughters to her.
Her first employees are in their 30s now and “successful,” but she said they still will come back and start working “like they never left.”
They often offer to help out at busy times of the year like New Year’s, Christmas, and Mother’s Day.
Their menu has an impressive list of flavors, including chi chi, lilikoi, peach, plum flower, sweet potato, daifuku, tsunami, yomogi, mantu, peanut butter, brownie, and marshmallow mochi, and manju. Uchida was a sweetheart and gave me some of the delicious mochi to take home.
Prices of assortment boxes of mochi and manju run from 6 pieces for $5.31 up to 20 pieces for $17.00.
I used to think this was expensive, but now I realize it probably doesn’t cost enough after seeing all of the hard work–and love–that Uchida and her employees put into making their mochi.
They are only open Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.