15+ Foods You Have to Try When You’re in Hawai`i

Hawai`i is home to one of the world’s most storied and eclectic cuisines—ancient foods with centuries and even millennia of traditional usage combined with foods and cuisines brought to the area by explorers, missionaries, whalers, and immigrant workers. Over several hundred years of local history, all these influences have mixed and melded together. The resulting cuisine is as inventive as it is delicious. Contemporary local foods include everything from taro-based dishes, such as poi and laulau, to Asian-influenced dishes like Spam® musubi and  saimin.

Traditional Hawaiian Food

1. Kalua pig. One of Hawai`i’s most famous and iconic dishes, kalua pig is pork meat cooked in an underground oven called an imu. With this method, the pig is slowly cooked in a firepit lined with hot rocks and banana leaves. Traditionally, the meat roasts from early morning until sunset, resulting in shredded pork that’s tender, juicy, and flavorful.

2. Laulau. In its most traditional form, laulau is pork wrapped in layers of taro leaves. The meat is then cooked in an imu for several hours, creating a deliciously smoky flavor. Both chicken and fish are prepared using this method too.

3. Poi. Where laulau uses the leaves of the taro plant, poi is an ancient, traditional Hawaiian food that forms taro root into a thick paste. To make poi, the root is steamed or baked, then pounded with water into a sticky paste similar in consistency to pudding.

4. Poke. Traditional Hawaiian poke is a dish of bite-sized pieces of raw fish, sea salt, seaweed, and crushed kukui nuts. (Nowadays, it uses fish such as ahi tuna, salmon, even octopus. It can be prepared using various condiments and seasonings, such as green onions and Asian-influenced flavors like furikake. The dish is often enjoyed with a blend of soy sauce and wasabi, mixed to your desired “heat level.”)

5. Haupia. To make haupia, coconut milk and sugar are heated with a thickener called pia, similar to ground arrowroot. When the mixture is smooth and thick, it’s poured into a dish and left to cool, similar to a gelatin dessert. Haupia is popular on its own or served in the form of a pie, with a layer of haupia and a layer of sweet potato or chocolate.

6. Kūlolo. Taro (kalo, in Hawaiian) is a starchy root vegetable that is a staple food in many Pacific cultures, including Hawai`i. Both the leaves and roots are used extensively in traditional cuisine. In the dessert dish kūlolo, taro corms are baked or steamed in an imu or in a standard oven, with coconut milk or the coconut flesh. When cooked in this way the taro becomes a thick, fudge-like pudding with a coconut and caramel-like flavor.

These items continue to be much beloved by many in Hawai`i, so much so you’ll probably see these flavorful foods at different grocery stores, already packaged and ready to purchase. If you’re at Suisan Fish Market, or at KTA Super Stores throughout the Big Island for example, stand in front of the fish counter and you’ll see trays of various poke concoctions, and more, sure to make your eyes wide and your mouth water!

Modern-Day Faves

7. Lomi salmon. Also called lomi lomi salmon, this dish made its way to Hawai`i via other islands in the Pacific and is now a staple of local cuisine. Raw salmon is cured with salt, then diced with onions, tomatoes, and green onions.

8. Chicken long rice. This Chinese-influenced dish consists of clear noodles cooked in a fragrant chicken broth with ginger, garlic, and green onions.

9. Luau stew. A simple stew is made with fresh taro leaves, slow cooked, and seasoned with salt. It’s flavorful enough on its own but can be enhanced with brown sugar and coconut milk, or onions, garlic, and ginger. It’s delicious by itself, or try it served over rice, or with chicken or pork.

10. Saimin. This traditional soup is the ultimate melting pot, both literally and figuratively, with its fusion of cuisines from all parts of the globe. Saimin features:

  • A clear Japanese dashi broth
  • Thin Chinese egg noodles
  • One or more additional ingredients, such as kimchi, kamaboko fish cake, green onions, Spam, or Portuguese sausage

Saimin is such an iconic dish, it’s even available at McDonald’s® restaurants across the Hawaiian Islands.

11. Kalbi ribs. This dish originally hails from Korea and features thinly sliced beef short ribs marinaded in:

  • Ginger and garlic
  • Soy sauce
  • Brown sugar
  • Rice vinegar
  • Sesame

12. Huli huli chicken. Chicken is doused in a marinade of soy sauce, garlic, ginger, brown sugar, pineapple juice, and ketchup. It can then be grilled over on an open fire, creating pieces of poultry that are sweet, spicy, and tender.

13. Mochiko chicken. Light and crunchy, sweet and salty, mochiko chicken is a local take on popcorn chicken. The bite-sized pieces of chicken are tossed in mochiko, a sweet flour made from glutinous rice. It gives the chicken a crispy, crunchy skin with just a little sticky-chewiness that is dangerously delicious!

14. Plate lunch. You can find  Hawaiian plate lunches all over the Islands, from food trucks and lunch wagons to restaurants and homes. The traditional plate lunch includes:

  • A couple scoops of white rice
  • A scoop of macaroni salad
  • One or a combo of different types of meats, such as kalua pig, teriyaki beef or chicken, roast pork and brown gravy, chicken or pork laulau, or kalbi ribs

15. Spam musubi. Spam became popular in Hawai`i in the 1940s and 1950s, and this variation on Japanese sushi has become an internationally renowned local snack. Spam musubi includes a slice of Spam on a layer of cooked rice, with the whole thing wrapped in nori (a sheet of dried seaweed) and topped with condiments such as furikake or Japanese mayonnaise.

16. Manapua. This portable Hawaiian snack is a local version of traditional Chinese bao, brought to the Hawaiian Islands via immigrants who settled in the 19th century. Manapua are baked or steamed with a variety of filling, such as char siu pork, shoyu chicken, or sweet potato.

17. Loco Moco®. A piping hot hamburger patty liberally enveloped by brown gravy and capped off with a fried egg, all on a bed of white rice. This dish was invented at Café 100, a Hilo diner that opened in 1946 and is still going strong. Loco Moco is comfort on a plate—or in a bowl—and, not surprisingly, this simple-but-decadent dish is a longstanding local favorite.

18. Pasteles. Introduced to Hawai`i by Puerto Rican immigrants, pasteles are similar to tamales, but with a few differences. In Hawai`i, the pastele is yuca or yautia—a relative of taro—mixed with plantains or green banana. They can be filled with seafood, chicken, or pork and are often served on a bed of rice.

19. Shave ice. (“Ice shave,” as it’s known in Hilo) One of Hawai`i’s go-to snacks, it was originally brought to the Islands by way of Japanese plantation workers, who would shave shards of ice from huge blocks, then flavor it with fruit or juice. It’s still enjoyed in much the same way, or with additions like ice cream, sweet red bean paste, or mochi.

20. Kona coffee. Only coffee cultivated on the mountainous slopes of the north and south Kona districts of the Big Island can be called Kona coffee. The coffee plant was brought to the area in the 1820s, and the volcanic soil and mild climate of the area has helped establish Kona coffee among the world’s finest and most exclusive. It is rich and smooth and smells like heaven in a cup.

21. Macadamia nuts. Although macadamia trees are native to Australia, they were first farmed commercially in Hawai`i. As a result, these deliciously crunchy nuts are strongly associated with the Islands. Roasted and salted, dipped in chocolate, or baked into cookies, they’re scrumptious every way you eat them.

22. Da kines. “Da kine” is a kind of multi-purpose phrase (in Hawaiian Pidgin English) that can mean different things depending on context. In conversation, it’s something generally understood…without having to say much. Big Island Candies’ da kines is a popular product line based on treats that most in Hawai`i grew up snacking on during recess on the playground, after school, or after work. They’re familiar, and it’s generally understood by many just how delicious they are. Ika (dried shredded cuttlefish) and animal crackers are some of our favorite childhood treats. Now they’re even better thanks to the addition of milk chocolate!

Hawaiian Cuisine Proves That Tradition—and Innovation—Are Delicious

With its varied origins and mix of different cuisines and styles, Hawaiian food covers a wide array of different tastes and preferences. Whether it’s centuries-old traditional Hawaiian dishes, such as poi and kalua pork, or recent inventions, like Spam musubi or Loco Moco, all this variety is united by its utter deliciousness!

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