This is the mochi that will spoil you for all others. On our recent trip to the Big Island we munched our way through this gorgeous assortment of island-style mochi treats from Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo. Aren’t they just beautiful to look at? They’re as pretty as any petit four and their appeal goes way beyond good looks. The texture Two Ladies manages to achieve with their mochi is just so light and delicate that it’s almost hard to compare it to any other mochi we’ve had before. It’s in a completely different league. Our favorite was one of their house specialties: giant, juicy strawberries surrounded by a delicate layer of tsubushi an (mashed red azuki bean filling) all snugly wrapped in freshly steamed mochi. And the fact that Two Ladies Kitchen is a down-home, family operation is just one more reason to love it.
With all it’s Japanese influences Hawaii is big on mochi, especially at the New Year when many families and communities get together to ring in the year with Mochitsuki (mochi pounding) celebrations like the one in this video. It looks like a lot of fun as long as you manage not to get pounded by the giant wooden mallet! Another foodie adventure to add to the to do list!
You might also like these Hawaii and mochi-related posts: Mochi Adventure at Benkyo-Do in San Francisco; Shoyu Poke, Kona Coffee and Poha Berries: Big Island Food Adventure, Big Island Food Adventure (video)
After our sheer glee at our inaugural Scandinavian bento, with it’s meatballs and dreamy, creamy dill potatoes (Simran’s still talking about them!), we decided our next stop on our world bento tour should be Japan and a more traditional take. To me this is comfort food at its finest: a home-style chicken curry; sweet-salty-sticky soy-glazed pumpkin; a few crisp vegetables; sweet, juicy citrus; and a meltingly soft piece of pineapple mochi for dessert. It’s a like a big fat hug in bento form.
We’ll be sharing the recipes for the curry and the pumpkin very soon, so stay tuned, but in the meantime, we’d love your suggestions about where to go next. Argentina? Thailand? Italy? The possibilities are endless.
We’ve been meaning to make a trek to try the handmade mochi at Benkyo-do near San Francisco’s Japantown for ages. Based on the many accolades from mochi fans the world over, it’s a beloved favorite (family owned since 1906). So when the hunger pang for ramen hit, which it often does, I packed up Luca and the bambino and we headed for J-town. There are dozens of places to grab udon, ramen, or a bento box and lots of fun shopping for odds and ends. We especially love browsing the Nijiya Japanese supermarket, the Kinokuniya bookstore and the various Japanese dollar stores (Ichiban-Kan, Daiso), and I’m sure most kids will be all over climbing the rocks and sculptures scattered in and around Peace Plaza. (Check out more ideas for a J-Town adventure from Simran’s earlier post.)
But back to the mochi…. For the uninitiated, mochi is sweet rice steamed and pounded until it reaches a gummy, taffy-like consistency. It’s then filled with various sweet bean pastes and/or other flavors or sometimes just decorated and left plain. It’s a bit hard to describe, so my advice is to just try it and see for yourself. Just as much about the texture as flavor, the made-daily freshness of Benkyo-do’s mochi is a big part of the appeal.
Benkyo-do makes Komochi, Kinako Dango, Sekihan, Okasane varieties of mochi and many of the flavors are seasonal, so the line-up changes often. But leave the terminology for the connoisseurs because all you have to do is scan the display case and pick a few things that look tempting. At about a buck a piece, you wont break the bank but bring cash because they don’t accept credit cards (also take note that they are closed Sundays). Luca selected the strawberry mochi for us and it was much lighter, softer and delicate than other mochi I have tried and it had a fresh strawberry tucked inside along with a white bean paste and strawberry mixture. Yum! It’s the kind of thing you should enjoy right away to fully appreciate its freshness. You can also try some of Benkyo-do’s other snacks like Dorayaki which is like a pancake sandwich with a sweet red bean filling or goodies like teriyaki-flavored pretzels.
I happen to be a big, big fan of old-school lunch counters and that is another reason to stop by Benkyo-do. There seem to be only a handful left around the city these days and this is the real-deal. You’re not going to get espresso or a sustainably sourced, grass-fed burger but you can enjoy a donut and a cup of regular old coffee or maybe an egg salad sandwich or a hot dog. Sitting at the time-worn formica counter among neighborhood locals hanging out over a cup of coffee is perfectly uncomplicated and just the right antidote when you feel like “keeping it real”.
A note to parents: Benkyo-Do is tiny, so strollers are not a great option here and they only have a handful of counter seats, so you’ll have to judge whether this works for your family as a sit-down food adventure.
One recent sunny spring day, the bambino and I took in a leisurely stroll in Golden Gate Park and on a whim we stopped in at the Japanese Tea Garden. With the wisteria in full bloom and purple irises dotting the pond it was nothing short of spectacular. Of course we made a pit stop at the tea house to enjoy the view and refresh ourselves with a cup of genmaicha tea (green tea with toasty brown rice) and a few bites of mochi.
There are certain places that bring me straight back to my childhood and this is one of them. I have vivid memories of scrambling over the drum bridge, looking for koi, and pretending the miniature bonsais and replica temples were my personal dominion. And it was always a treat when my parents would stop for tea and buy me and my brother a little bowl of rice crackers to snack on. It feels like coming full circle to bring my little ones here.
The Tea Garden is just one of our favorite stops along this section of Golden Gate Park and you can easily while away the better part of the day without visiting the usual attractions (the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences). A “secret” stairway to the west of the Tea Garden connects it to Stow Lake. Because parking is usually better around Stow Lake, it’s a good place to start an adventure. Stow Lake is the perfect destination for little bicycle riders, stroller walks, squirrel spotting, feeding the ducks (or seagulls depending on your luck) and snacking on some delightfully dreadful Pink Popcorn.
To the east of the Tea Garden, the De Young’s sculpture garden and observation tower are totally fab freebies (no museum entrance is required for either) and the Museum Cafe is an absolute godsend when mom or dad needs a little caffine. While you’re in the neighborhood, we always make sure throw a penny or two into one of the fountains in the middle of the music concourse and make a few echoes in one of the tunnels on the east end of the concourse (one tunnel leads to the Academy of Sciences and the other leads to the “blue playground” at 8th and Fulton). And if serendipity truly favors you, you just might find the Twirl and Dip ice cream truck somewhere in the vicinity. (Try their toffee, we hear it’s to die for!)
The Japanese Tea Garden is free on Monday, Wednesday and Friday before 10am (always free for kids 4 and under). You might just see this furry ticket taker while you’re there.