Mochi Making at UH Hilo

A brief History of the Japanese Rice Cake Delicatessen

A cartoon of two mochi balls smiling and high-fiving each other.

Staff Writer: Victoria Jose
Graphic Artist: Naomi Lemieux

If you were to walk by a dessert table at a party in Hawaii, chances are, you’re going to see mochi — a small, often colorful, rice cake dessert covered in potato starch. The Student Activities Council realizes that this is such a common delicatessen in Hawaii the organization wanted to give their fellow students an opportunity to learn how to make it.

On Nov. 2, SAC will host a “Mochi Making Monday.” Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the event will only be in the form of a “grab and go.” This involves students picking up mochi-making kits from the SAC office. Kits include ingredients to make the mochi, along with a pamphlet offering instructions and a brief history of mochi. The kits will be available on a first-to-reserve basis. “I thought that it would be something fun, simple, and still fall within CDC guidelines that students could do” said SAC Event Planner Natalia Zelaya. She became inspired after talking with a local student who said they wanted to see more activities centered around local practices. “It is a staple of the islands and a treat we all enjoy.”

Ke Kalahea reached out to Yoshiko Okuyama, Ph.D., a Japanese Studies professor at UH Hilo, seeking his commentary on the virtue of mochi in Japanese culture, why it’s traditionally eaten on certain holidays and its significance in Hawaii. Okuyama found the questioning so “interesting” he planned to ask his students to answer them as part of an extra credit assignment. Ke Kalahea didn’t hear from any of his students by press time. In early Japanese society, rice was held in very high esteem, according to the book, “The History and Culture of Japanese Food” by Naomichi Ishige. When a new emperor would ascend the throne, it was believed that the sacred imperial power was weakened. In order to be reinvigorated, the new emperor had to partake of rice and sake (also made from rice) from the first harvest. This idea of rice being revered would also pass on to mochi, Ishige states in her book.

It is a dessert that was originally enjoyed during certain holidays such as Girls Day, March 3, and Children’s Day, May 5. The main ingredient is a sweet rice, which can be used in flour form or in the natural form. Traditionally, the rice would be steamed, placed in a wooden mortar and pounded with a long handled wooden mallet, according to Ishige’s book. Once pounded, the mochi is covered in kinako, a yellow flour made from soybean. Mochi came to Hawaii with the many thousands of Japanese sugar plantations workers, according to “The Making of Asian America” by Erika Lee. In January of 1885, 941 of the first Japanese Immigrants came to Hawaii. By 1924, there were 200,000 who would make their way to the islands, Lee’s book states. Most of the Japanese immigrants were young men, known as dekasegi, or sojourners. Some chose to settle down and either brought their families or sent home for a Japanese picture bride. Preparing mochi was one way that they preserved their culture from afar.

This is especially true for the family members of Nora Uchidal, the owner of Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo. It is widely known for its long lines out the door, with people seeking their famous mochi. Nora’s grandparents were just one of many that came to work in the sugar fields, according to a “Great Big Story,” which is a documentary about Two Ladies Kitchen posted on YouTube. Her grandmother was the first one to introduce the treat to her, but it was her aunt that would teach her the mochi making way. This would later inspire the name of the restaurant we know today. Nora and her aunt are the original “two ladies.” However, not everything would stay traditional. They adapted their recipes to reflect their Hawaiian life. If you walk into the shop today, you will have a choice of lilikoi, or even strawberry, mochi.

To reserve your kit and see other events hosted by SAC, visit their website at https://hilo.hawaii.edu/campuscenter/sac/events.php

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