In the past few years, Hawaiian food has made its way to the mainland and taken the nation by storm. The poke bowl (pronounced poh-keh) which originated on our islands and has been eaten by locals in Hawaii for years is now wildly popular and making its way onto the plates of mainlanders.
While we’re very happy that our unique and diverse island cuisine is finally getting recognized, what is missing is the history behind each of our dishes. Food plays an important role in our daily lives on the island – it has become part of our culture and is a true depiction of the melting pot that exists in Hawaii today.
If you want to get a true taste of local culture in Hawaii, take a bite of our diverse cuisine and eat like the locals do…you won’t regret it!
10 MUST-TRY LOCAL FOODS FROM HAWAII
Foodland’s Poke Bowls
Now that the rest of the world has caught on to the poke bowl craze, it is time to highlight Oahu’s best and most frequented place to get your poke bowl fix, Foodland.
Foodland is one of Hawaii’s oldest grocery stores and has been named “Hawaii’s Best” by the local newspaper, Star Advertiser, for their poke and poke bowls. Every local in Hawaii knows that Foodland is the place to get the best raw fish and pupus on the island. There are a number of different poke varieties to choose from but the most popular is the spicy poke bowl and the spicy volcano poke bowl.
Growing up in Hawaii, every if not all parents would often buy their kids a “bento” for lunch during a school field trip. I remember opening up my lunch “bag” (because in Hawaii lunches never fit in a box!) and saw my “zip pac” sitting there staring at me, along with 2-4 other kids.
Zip Pac’s are a plate-lunch-meets-bento kind of meal created and sold only at a local restaurant named Zippy’s. It includes island favorites such as teriyaki beef, mahi mahi, fried chicken, and a slice of spam over furikake rice. Zippy’s is known to have the best fried chicken on the island and their Zip Pac is one of their signature dishes. You can always guarantee your Zip Pac will taste the same every time you order one.
My grandmother was a pickled mango connoisseur. She used to make them all the time whenever mango season came round and as kids, we’d just sit there waiting for a “sample” with our greedy little eyes and fingers. Just the mere thought of it makes my mouth water.
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In Hawaii, during mango season you will find everyone selling pickled mangoes. There are sweet varieties that are made with vinegar and sugar, or sour varieties, (the way I like it), made with vinegar, shoyu, and sugar. There are many ways to make it, but if you’re visiting, make sure you try at least one!
This meal has been around since before I was born. The loco moco mainly consists of white rice, topped with a homemade hamburger patty then a sunny-side-up fried egg, and brown gravy generously poured on top. The loco moco has somehow become popular in the mainland USA and since then different varieties (like shrimp loco moco) of this famous dish are popping up all over the country.
Imagine a dish so wonderful you know exactly what it is once you take a whiff? Every Native Hawaiian will know the smells of an authentic Hawaiian meal, which includes but is not limited to the following: Kalua Pig, Lau Lau, Lomi Salmon, Squid Luau, Opihi, and Poi.
If you’re ever lucky enough to attend a real Hawaiian luau, these are the items to look out for. Of course, it’s a rare to find real Hawaiian luau anymore…unless you’re invited to one. Your best option at this point is to go to Highway Inn or Helena’s Hawaiian Food.
Every New Years Eve, our family goes over to a neighbors house or family gathering for a bbq. And, at every bbq you’ll find maki sushi arranged in a circular pattern on a tray which no one ever wants to eat because it looks so nice!
This local-style version of a Japanese favorite consists of canned tuna, red and green shrimp powder, sweet egg (tamago), gobo, and kanpyo. You can find maki sushi at okazuyas all over the island.
Made with just 3 ingredients; white rice, Spam and nori – the Spam Musubi (see our kid-friendly recipe here) can be found at almost any convenient store (7-11, etc.) on the island. When the Japanese/Chinese brought rice to our island back in the early 1900’s, it started slowly replacing the Hawaiian “taro” as the preferred starch eaten by locals.
In grade school, if there was a field trip, every parent made the same thing for their child: a Tupperware container filled with rice and either hotdogs or Spam. So, it would seem only natural that some local-Japanese (Japanese who are born and raised in Hawaii) would invent an Onigiri or Musubi version of this popular kids meal and turn it into Hawaii’s most desired snack food item.
Similar to baked custard, Butter Mochi is a beloved dessert in Hawaii. Traditionally a Japanese sweet, mochi is made with sweet rice flour and has a soft and chewy consistency.
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The best mochi is made with mochiko flour, found at many Asian stores around the island. Butter mochi is a baked version that melts in your mouth when it comes straight out of the oven. You can find butter mochi at local grocery stores across the islands.
Saimin is Hawaii’s version of Asian noodles, mainly of Chinese origin. ‘Sai’ means thin, and so, saimin refers to the thin noodles used in the dish. The noodles are placed in a dashi broth that’s similar to the broth base used in miso soup, except it doesn’t contain miso (fermented bean paste).
That’s the basis of the soup, to which you can add anything you like – we often enjoy ours with green onions, bok choy, spam, and sometimes even fishcakes! There are so many great saimin joints on the island; perhaps this list can narrow down your visit for you!
If you find yourself at a local Hawaiian restaurant, one of the first things you’ll find on the menu is a mixed plate lunch. A plate lunch is a typical local meal eaten in Hawaii composed of rice, macaroni salad and a meat entrée.
A lot of Hawaii’s diversity is seen in the plate lunch. Dishes from the various ethnic groups (Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc) coming together on one plate. The beginnings of the mixed plate date back to lunchtime on the sugar plantations – Japanese workers would be eating beef teriyaki with rice, Filipino workers had plates of chicken or pork adobo and rice, for the Koreans workers it was marinated spare ribs, and Hawaiian plates would have kalua pig. Eventually the mixing of cuisines happened, which ended up with what we know as today’s Hawaiian mixed plate!
And there you have it…10 local foods from Hawaii that you’ll always find on the plates of its residents. Let us know in the comments below if you’ve tried any of these, and if so, what are your favorites?