Last week, I briefly mentioned the deliciousness that is Hawaiian food (mostly my beloved loco moco), but I realized I didn’t give the cuisine that I’ve grown to love a proper introduction.
So, I’ve decided to create a list of common dishes and foods that are native to Hawaii.
The thing that I love most about Hawaiian cuisine is that it reflects the many cultures that call Hawaii home. The culinary landscape of these islands is shaped by the influences of the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Polynesian, Portuguese and American communities that live here.
I divided the food into three main categories: traditional, local and regional cuisine. Let’s start at the very beginning, shall we?
Traditional Hawaiian Foods
Traditionally roasted in an underground oven, kulua pig was one of the main sources of protein for Native Hawaiians. It has a distinct smoky flavor and is quite rich with a salty taste. I can only handle small amounts at a time, but those few bites are heaven.
This common starch is made out of taro root, which is native to Hawaii. It is a common side and complements the strong flavors of kulua pork quite well. I have to admit though that it’s not for everyone with its gelatinous consistency. It may look like pudding, but believe me there is not a trace of sweetness present.
A bundle of pork and/or salted butterfish wrapped in taro leaves and steamed until soft. Traditionally, it was cooked the same way as kalua pork in an imu (underground oven). Chicken, pork or fish are now common twists on the original recipe. Not really a fan, but my parents more than make up for my lack of enthusiasm towards this dish.
A dessert made of coconut cream and traditionally thickened with arrowroot starch, but now cornstarch is often substituted. It is often served in squares and is used to top wedding cakes.
Lomi Lomi Salmon
Introduced to Hawaiians from European sailors, this common side dish, that features raw salted salmon, tomatoes, onions, green onions and depending on spice preference: red chili peppers. The name “lomi lomi comes from the Hawaiian word “to massage,” referring to the preparation of the dish by mixing all the ingredients together by hand. Tasted similar to salsa, but with salmon thrown in the mix.
Another dessert that is made out of mashed taro and coconut milk and baked in an underground oven to harden it. The secret to a great batch of kulolo is that the taro has to be top-notch. It can be found easily on all the islands in markets and roadside stands.
Raw cubes of fish (usually ahi), marinated in soy sauce, green onions and sesame oil is a common version. It originated from when fisherman would cut off cubes of fish from their daily catch and season them. Foodland supermarkets are one of my first stops off the plane, since their poke is super fresh and they usually give out samples (but don’t quote me).
Ulu (breadfruit), lilikoi (passion fruit), mangos, papaya, apple-bananas, pinapple, guava and coconut. When I’m in Hawaii, my daily fruit intake goes waaay up.
Mahimahi, ahi tuna ono, opah (moonfish). Grilled with a little butter and garlic or dressed up with a special sauce, these fish can do no wrong.
A perfect union of American and Asian culinary influences, this hamburger topped with a fried egg, covered with gravy, on a bed of white rice is true island comfort food. It’s heavy and you most definitely will need a nap afterwards, but man is it worth it.
This portable meal borrows from the convenience of the Japanese bento box, which allowed plantation workers a quick and easy meal in the fields. It includes a protein, two-scoop white rice and creamy macaroni salad. The entrée is often in the form of an Asian-inspired protein: teriyaki chicken, chicken katsu, and can also be seafood: fish, shrimp…the options are endless. Fun fact: if your plate lunch has more than one entrée on it then it’s a mixed plate.
It is well known that Hawaiians are diehard fans of this canned meat since it was introduced in World War II as a GI ration. In the local supermarket, there are many options of different flavors like honey spam that are not often found on the mainland. Borrowing from the Japanese onigiri, spam musubi is a popular snack where a slab of spam is placed on top of a ball of rice and held together with a band of nori. It may seem like an odd combination at first, but trust me it quickly becomes an addiction.
A noodle soup that has it origins in China, but is distinctly Hawaiian as it has been adapted by the immigrant groups from Asia, who came through to work on the sugar plantations. It is inspired by Chinese mein, Japanese ramen and Filipino pancit. This noodle soup is also similar to Okinawa Soba, which shows that this dish was created when China and Okinawa had a close relationship. The main ingredients are egg noodles in a broth of dashi and garnished with green onions. Char siu pork, spa, linguica, wonton, gyoza and nori may be added to the mix. So good.
Like a snow cone you would get at the country fair, but so much smoother (and dare I say better). It’s similar to Japanese kakigori, a shaved ice dessert that uses syrup and condensed milk. You can instantly elevate it by adding ice cream to the bottom or adding a topping like mochi. There’s no better way to simultaneously satisfy your sweet tooth and cool off in Hawaii.
A local version of Japanese mochi that uses coconut milk and surprise: a whole lotta butter. As a huge fan of mocha in general, I cannot get enough of this Hawaiian hybrid.
Li Hing Mui Powder
A salty/sweet/sour powder that is made from dried salted plums popular in China and goes on everything from popcorn to gummy worms. On my past trip to Maui, I hesitantly tried li hing mui powder shaved ice and it instantly made the other two flavors (mango and pineapple) dull in comparison.
When the Portuguese labors came over to work on the sugar plantations, they brought with them malasadas, a deep-fried dough dessert that is sprinkled with sugar. Traditionally, malasadas were not filled, but you can now find them in Hawaii with custard, chocolate and guava fillings, just to name a few.
Hawaiian Regional Cuisine
In the past few decades, Hawaiian food has been redefined and popularized by a group of local chiefs. This created the Hawaiian regional cuisine (HRC) movement that focused on local and organic ingredients from the islands (think fresh fish, free-range beef, local greens) and transformed local dishes with new flavors. In the past, Hawaiian food was defined as using a lot of imported food in resort restaurants, leaving visitors uninspired with their meals on their trips. The HRC helped popularize Hawaiian cuisine beyond its own shores, gaining a mass following on the mainland and beyond.