story by David K. Choo
photos by Monte Costa
It’s a busy Saturday at Hilo’s Two Ladies Kitchen. There’s a soccer tournament at nearby Kalakaua Park, a charity walk at Hilo High School and several funerals across town, so Two Ladies will be in full production till the early evening, cranking out mochi to meet the demand. About a dozen workers— most related—are packed into the shop’s cozy kitchen, and everyone seems to know exactly what to do. In one corner an auntie mixes sweet rice flour with water to create big bowls of a gooey, glutinous mass. These she sends to an uncle who steams the mixture, mixes it again, then steams it again—a process that takes more than an hour and a half.
When the mochi is ready, Nora Uchida—one of the namesakes of Two Ladies Kitchen—scoops it out with a large wooden paddle and plops it down onto a well-floured work surface. Then she mixes the molten dough with coloring and forms luminous pastel balls, all by hand. She works fast, because when mochi cools it hardens into an unwieldy blob.
Uchida passes the mochi down the production line, where workers wrap it around a wide variety of fillings: some traditional, like an (sweet red bean paste) and fruits; others inventive, like pieces of brownie, bits of marshmallow and chunks of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Two Ladies Kitchen offers twenty varieties of mochi, and whatever the flavor, the pillowy confections are formed intoelegant shapes: flowers, shells and fruits. One, with its delicately pinched middle, resembles a butterfly. In an average day, Uchida and her staff will create hundreds of handmade treats for customers who come from all over the Islands and beyond. “Since we experiment a lot, we’ve been able to tap into a new market,” she says. “All kinds of people eat mochi now.”