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Monumental Mochi: A morning at Hilo's famous Two Ladies Kitchen

The colorful handmade mochi of Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo.

You didn’t pre-order?”

As she says this, the woman behind the counter at Two Ladies Kitchen stares at me in disbelief. A line of customers winds behind me and out of the small downtown Hilo mochi shop and onto the sidewalk alongside bustling Kilauea Avenue.

“You have to pre-order. They sell out,” she scolds, gently.

The subject at hand is the shop’s famed strawberry mochi—a fresh whole strawberry surrounded by hand-mashed sweet azuki beans, encased in the pillow-soft, handmade Japanese glutinous rice-cake paste that has made Two Ladies Kitchen a must-stop for Hilo residents and visitors buying Big Island omiyage—Japanese for “gifts” or “souvenirs”—for off-island family and friends. Strawberry mochi is the top-seller among the multiple mochi treats the shop crafts daily.

Behind the counter, Two Ladies’ kitchen bustles with activity. A handful of college-age girls, each with a specific mochi-handling job, are huddled over stainless steel tables. One rolls the mochi paste into balls, while another dusts off potato starch from each. Another girl wields a metal rod to create various mochi shapes and designs. Three college-age boys man the kitchen’s pots and ovens. Music by the British teen pop band One Direction blares on overhead speakers, as boxes of pre-ordered mochi are packed for afternoon parties, an early morning funeral and several sports teams visiting Hilo for games.

Two Ladies Kitchen co-founder Nora Uchida prepping strawberries for the shop's famous strawberry mochi.

An entire half of one of the kitchen’s large stainless steel tables is dedicated to making strawberry mochi.

“People come here for this,” says Two Ladies Kitchen owner Nora Uchida, carefully placing a large strawberry in a dollop of azuki beans in the center of a small, white mochi ball. She skillfully pinches the sweet rice dough until it encases the azuki and strawberry. “But you gotta like strawberries.”

The growing line of customers outside Uchida’s shop suggests that many do.

Uchida opened Two Ladies Kitchen almost two decades ago with her aunt, Tomi Tokeshi, and mother, Sachi Kishimoto. Truth be told, Uchida wanted the shop to be called Three Ladies Kitchen, but her mom, who’s now 88 and still mixes mochi batters, didn’t want the attention.

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