One of the perks of being a freelance writer is the backstage access.
In this case, backroom access of Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo.
This little shop right in Hilo town first opened about 20 years ago by Nora Uchida and her aunty, Tomi Tokeshi. (These are the “Two Ladies.”) At the time there weren’t any more mochi shops in Hilo, and the two had perfected the art of the sweet Japanese rice cake.
I flew into Hilo on Saturday — for about three hours — just to interview Nora and watch the dozen workers, mostly college students in their 20s, mix, roll, fill, dust, shape and package the more than 20 different kinds of mochi and manju the little shop has become famous for.
What impressed me most was how diligent and focused everyone was — despite a radio blaring music by One Direction and lively conversations over what’s affectionately known as The Table. Everyone had something to do, and they did it — quickly, efficiently and with the kind of care and gentleness that makes this one of the best mochi shops in the Islands.
I love that this all started with something so simple: Nora just wanted to learn how to make her aunty’s mochi.
“I just asked her to teach me because there was no one else to learn,” she says, filling flat rounds of white mochi with tsubushi-an (whole, mashed red azuki bean filling) for the shop’s famous strawberry mochi.
She wanted to perpetuate her aunty’s recipe. Turning it into a business came years later.
That got me thinking about everything my mom cooks and bakes — and that I’d better learn these recipes before they die with her.
I know that sounds morbid, but it’s true. My mom has long regretted not learning a French donut recipe from her aunt — she mentions it whenever she sees crullers — and it has made me think about how much I need to still learn from her.
Like her recipe for cookie manju, ozoni, Porgutuese-style stuffing, chicken hekka and Portuguese bean soup. I can’t imagine my life without these dishes, and I want to be able to share them with my own kids.
But it’s not just about the recipes. Like Nora, I’d have to really learn how to make my mom’s dishes, how she cuts the vegetables or mixes the batter. She has tricks and tips that you won’t find on a recipe card, and it would take time and effort to learn how she makes them — the right way.
I’m glad Nora reminded me about how important that is.
Recipes are a part of a family’s history, and it’s something that can be shared, something that conjures fond memories. Nora is lucky — she still has her family around her. (That’s her 92-year-old dad, Toshiyasu Kishimoto, and 88-year-old mom, Sachi, above.) She can still learn from them. But others of us aren’t as fortunate. And that was a great lesson to learn.
And, of course, the mochi was great, too.
Two Ladies Kitchen, 274 Kilauea Ave., Hilo. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Phone: (808) 961-4766.