Coming from the mainland, it’s not unusual to think that all Hawaiians eat pizza topped with pineapple and ham, drink Mai Tais from dawn to dusk and have no clue what a SPAM Musubi is (or why you’d even want to eat one).
With a diverse blend of cultures and a rich culinary history, Hawaii is so much more than just stunning beaches and stifling hot weather! The cultural diversity on the islands provides residents and visitors with a variety of diverse cuisines to satisfy all culinary cravings. But, if you’re visiting Hawaii, you definitely want to set aside a night or two to try some traditional Hawaiian fare. Who knows, it might just surprise you.
Spanning multiple types of Hawaiian food, Poke is often considered the Islands version of a tuna tartare or carpaccio.
Here’s a bit of history for you. In the 1970s, Poke became a grocery store essential, eventually taking on such a strong cultural identity that some called it, “Hawaii’s Hamburger”.
When Hawaiian regional cuisine arrived in earnest, Poke was transformed into high-end appetizers and luxurious main meals.
Local-style Poke is ideal road trip food and normally comes in a clear plastic deli container. Most places offer a variety of fresh ahi poke alone or with something else, like seaweed, Maui onions, spicy mayo or avocado.
The best spots boast rows of shiny fish, intriguing customers with wasabi-flavored octopus or baffling them with kimchi sea snails.
To the seasoned sushi eater, the fresh flavors of Poke will be familiar: the heated nut hint of sesame oil, the soft saltiness of fish roe and spice in the fruity form of peppers or sinus-clearing heat of wasabi.
As with tartare or carpaccio, fresh fish is the key to a great Poke. It’s so popular, that Poke can now be found in most good restaurants and supermarkets throughout the islands.
The best tasting poke is caught fresh. So, before you buy, it’s recommended that you check if it’s got the (legally required) label that says it’s made from previously frozen fish.
Manapua is a ball-shaped bun filled with pork. That’s both what the Hawaiian word mean and what it is.
It’s a near relation to the Chinese char siu bao, a steamed pork bun. This sweet pork-filled and steamed roll hasn’t changed much over the years, apart from growing to fit Hawaiian-sized portions.
In the 19th century, these soft white buns were stacked in hampers, hung from sticks and sold by street food merchants and traveling Manapua men.
It’s best eaten fresh and still warm with stuffing so full that it’s bursting. The pork, in bite-size slices, sits in a sweet, but not overpowering sauce, which is just thick enough to prevent the bun from going soggy.
Luckily for everyone involved, these delicious balls can be found on bakery shelves or at nearly any convenience store.
A result of several cultures crashing into each other, Pipikaula,, like many Hawaiian dishes, has a storied past.
Cows, not native to the islands, were given to King Kamehameha I by British Navy explorer George Vancouver. Amazed by these animals, the King banned hunting them, and, by 1845, it is estimated that 25,000 feral cattle lived on the big island of Hawaii alone.
To mainlanders, Pipikaula is just Hawaiian beef jerky or thereabouts.
Modern-day interpretations of Pipikaula often incorporate Asian influences and prep normally begins by soaking strips of beef in soy sauce. After marinating, the strips are either dried outside in the hot Hawaiian sun or hung to dry in the kitchen over the hob. Once dried, Pipikaula has a strong salted flavor that pops with beef.
Kalua is a Hawaiian cooking method that used to involve an underground oven (imu), but now can be cooked just as good in a slow cooker.
Way back when, in order to build an imu, you’d need hot lava rocks that were placed in a hole which was then lined with banana leaves. Once the imu was ready, a whole salted pig was placed inside, then covered with more banana leaves. The entire imu was then covered by soil and left to steam all day.
Normally eaten at luaus and served with a salad of chopped tomatoes and onions over hot steaming rice, Kalua pork is soft and tender and a bit like pulled pork, salty and mouthwatering.
Outside of Hawaii, Haupia isn’t well known, which is a shame, as this heavenly coconut dessert is truly to die for.
Usually in gelatin form, Haupia is made by uniting coconut milk, sugar, salt and a thickening agent, like cornstarch or pia (arrowroot starch). Yum!
More popular now than ever, you’ll normally find Haupia served as part of a cake or pie, or with other sweet treats, like chocolate. Perfect by itself or with these other tasty delights; once you’ve tried Haupia, you’re never want anything else for afters again.
Many locals love it so much that, a few times a year, McDonalds will sell Haupia pie in the exact same shape as the much loved apple one!
Of course, this is just a tiny mix of some of the amazing food that Hawaii has to offer. Many of these firm favorites can be found throughout Hawaii, but if you’re anywhere near Oahu, then Ono Hawaiian Foods, Helena’s Hawaiian Food and Highway Inn need to be on your list, stat.
Oh, and don’t forget to try:
A round mass of dark, soft (almost gooey) leaves wrapped around a chunk of pork. Consisting of pork wrapped in taro leaves, Lau Lau is traditionally cooked until the taro has become soft and the pork is fully cooked. Today, you might find it filled with butterfish or chicken and served with rice and macaroni salad.
Consisting of slices of fried SPAM on top of a rectangle of rice and wrapping in seaweed or nori. This very convenient snack food can be found wherever you go, from grocery stores to sushi restaurants to local diners like Zippy’s or Likelike Drive-Inn.