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Oct 04, 2018

The Making of Mochi

In a blur of pounding, two Japanese men stand over a wooden slab, pounding and stretching a gelatinous dough at a blistering pace.

We're in Nara City, Japan, at Nakatanidou, a famous purveyor of hand-pounded mochi, or Japanese rice cake. In the storefront, throngs of passers by have gathered to watch these two master mochi-pounders go about their work.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

In a whirlwind, a mallet (kine) is wielded by one man while another man wets and turns the steamed rice into shaped gooey goodness. The process, knowns as mochitsuki, dates back centuries and feels as much of a perfectly executed dance as it does work in the kitchen. To be sure, it's a breathtaking sight to behold and the sheer speed in which the rice is pounded, pulled, and pried into delectable treats is astounding, and t0 honest, it's a miracle that no one is injured.

Here at Nakatanidou, they specialize in adding a variety of local ingredients, including ones that grow wild like Yomogi (a form of mugwort) that gives this mochi a soft green texture. In light of their efforts, Nakatanidou has consecutively won the national high-speed mochitsuki championship (yes, it's a thing) in 2005 and 2006 and is one of the most iconic mochi-shops in Japan. But they're hardly the only one.

In the days of sugar cane, thousands of immigrants from across the globe migrated to Hawai'i to work the fields, each ethnic group bringing their own history, culture—and of course food—with them. When the Japanese arrived, they introduced their love of mochi—along with so many other wonderful things—to the islands and to this day, it remains a beloved delicacy. Over on the Big Island of Hawai'i, Nora Uchida of the world famous Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo is at the vanguard of mochi in the Islands.

"I think mochi is love," says Nora, through a soft but confident voice. "Traditionally, mochi is pounded out and stuffed with treats like Azuki bean, but because we're here in Hawai'i, I like to do things a little differently." Nora's grandparents, who played a defining role in her life, immigrated to Hawai'i to work in the fields and it was her grandmother's recipe and love of mochi that propelled Nora to open her own shop more than two-and-a-half decades ago. To be sure, Two Ladies Kitchen's brand of mochi isn't what you would find in Japan and features distinctively local ingredients. Persimmon, pineapple, lilikoi, and strawberry wrapped in azuki bean are just some of the distinctly local flavors you'll find at Two Ladies. While mochi traces its roots back to Japan, the variety you'll find here in Hawai'i is all our own.

With that in mind, we think we're going to head down to Lucy's Lab for mochi waffle ice cream or Holoholo for a simple slab of savory butter mochi to quell our afternoon hunger pangs. Better yet, let's head to Rice Fest this weekend to get our mochi fix. Sticky, comforting, rooted in tradition but made our own, it's clear that mochi in Hawai'i is going to stick around for a long, long time. Now, it's definitely time for a snack. I know just the place.

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