Hawaiian cuisine is unique in its flavors and tastes, influenced mainly by the Pacific Polynesian islands. Simple yet tasty and filling, they are a fusion of food items introduced by the immigrants and settlers. Some of the popular ones include spam musubi, loco moco, or plate lunch. Besides these, some are centerpieces in a luau party like poi, kalua pig, and poke. So, whether you are curious to try homemade Hawaiian dishes or planning to have the best ones on your visit to the island, these are some that cannot be missed.
Poi is a traditional purple paste prepared from taro root, a starchy root vegetable. It is either steamed or baked, and mashed on a wooden pounding board , while the addition of water helps it attain a pudding-like sticky consistency. The one-finger poi one of the three names given to the poi as per their thickness is the thickest of all scooped using just a single finger. The two and three finger ones however need a little more effort to be scooped.
A staple food of Hawaiian families, it has a smooth, creamy texture often enjoyed immediately to relish its sweetness. However, it turns sour as it gradually starts to ferment. While the sweet version is served with some sugar sprinklings, the sour one goes best with salted fish or lomi salmon.
Laulau is a popular Hawaiian food consisting of fatty pork wrapped in taro leaves and packaged with ti leaves. Traditionally, it is cooked thoroughly in an underground pit oven called imu for 3-4 hours. In present times, the steamer replaces the oven in which water is refilled from time to time.
The meat turns tender and moist, while the taro leaves also become incredibly soft like cooked spinach. After removing the inedible ti leaves, laulau is served hot with rice and poi. The meat filling has a savory flavor that goes well with the earthy taste of the taro leaves.
Many modern versions also exist that have a chicken or fish filling instead.
Kalua Pig is a famous traditional pork dish, much similar in appearance to pulled pork. Cooked in a traditional imu pit for long hours, it attains a smoky flavor, and becomes so tender that it almost falls apart. Soft and juicy, this delicious platter goes well with a plate of rice.
Hawaiian poke is a healthy lip-smacking delicacy made with raw fish, preferably ahi (tuna). They are cut into bite-sized cubes and usually marinated with peppers, soy sauce, sesame oil, onions, and seaweed. They’re traditionally served in a bowl, enjoyed as an appetizer, or paired with rice as the main course. Other Hawaiian versions also exist, like shoyu poke and limu poke. The seasonings and add-ons are slightly different in these.
Any traditional Hawaiian meal is incomplete without Lomi Salmon, also known as lomi lomi salmon. It is a salad-like side dish introduced to the traditional cuisine by the early western sailors. Ingredients like salted salmon, tomatoes, onions, scallions, and chili peppers go into it. As ‘lomi’ is a Hawaiian word for rubbing or massaging, all these components are mixed using the hand. Served chilled, it is an essential item in parties and gatherings.
Chicken long rice is primarily a Chinese dish, modified by the Hawaiians to suit their taste. It is a comfort food made with vermicelli noodles, chicken, ginger, and onions. They’re served in a bowl, enjoyed as a light meal with less soup and more noodles. However, one can add more broth as per the preference. It is also a typical side dish often enjoyed with kalua pork, lomi salmon, and rice.
Loco Moco is a well-known dish known to be first made at Hawaii’s Lincoln Grill restaurant. Though several versions are now available, it typically comprises white rice layers topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and warm brown gravy. It is served hot after garnishing with some green onions. Rich and fulfilling, it has a combination of flavors enhanced by the savory sauce.
Manapua is the Hawaiian adaptation of the Chinese cha siu bao. It consists of steamed or baked buns stuffed with a pork filling. Once prepared, it is best served warm. A sweet and savory delicacy, it slowly melts in the mouth, leaving the rich flavors behind.
In different versions, pork is replaced with other meats like beef or chicken. Besides these, there are also vegan or vegetarian forms of this dish, stuffed with beans or mushrooms.
Saimin is a traditional noodle soup made from wheat and egg noodles and a simple, clear broth called dashi. Additional toppings like spam, egg, green onions, and kamaboko, a type of cured fish, make the dish delicious and filling. Though flavorful, it is a light meal enjoyed hot at any time of the day.
Huli-Huli chicken is a tempting Hawaiian grilled chicken dish. It has a unique sweet-savory taste, mainly due to the drizzling of a sauce prepared from pineapple juice, soy sauce, ginger, honey, and sugar. The word ‘huli’ is the Hawaiian term for turning, justifying the dish’s cooking process. It is traditionally turned over mesquite woods during the barbequing process, making it smoky and juicy.
Garlic shrimp is a favorite local delicacy commonly sold in shrimp trucks. The fresh shrimps, coated with flour and seasonings like paprika, cayenne, salt, and pepper, are cooked in butter and olive oil with garlic. Before serving it, lemon juice and parsley are sprinkled on top, along with a drizzle of the remaining garlic butter sauce used in cooking. A plate of white rice would be an ideal accompaniment to the savory delight.
Malasadas are Hawaiian versions of donuts prepared from the yeast-leavened dough, eggs, butter, sugar, and milk. Once deep-fried till golden-brown, they are coated with granulated sugar for added sweetness. Light and fluffy, these sweet treats taste best at room temperature. Many present versions also have fillings of haupia, a traditional coconut-based dessert or custard or chocolate. Though of Portuguese origin, they have gained immense popularity in Hawaii, sold at every bakery shop.
This flavorful dish became a part of the Hawaiian cuisine with the migration of Puerto Ricans to the state. It is their version of tamales, consisting of a layer of masa made out of green bananas stuffed with a meat filling. Wrapping them inside a banana leaf, they are boiled for about an hour and served. A typical holiday food, pasteles are delicious savory treats that are worth the time and effort.
Spam musubi is a delectable snack prepared with spam, a lump of canned meat, topped on a block of sticky rice and encased inside edible dried seaweed called nori. Before assembling them, the spam is marinated with soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar and fried to get a sweet and savory taste. Besides being tasty, it is also inexpensive, found easily at any Hawaiian convenience store.
Plate lunch is a staple meal in Hawaii, hearty and easy on the pockets, found at roadside stands and local hole-in-the-wall restaurants. It is not a particular dish but a combination of three items, including two scoops of steamed rice, mayonnaise-based macaroni salad, and an entrée dish like loco moco, kalua pork, or laulau. These takeaway items usually come packed in compartmental disposable plates.
Baked Okinawan Sweet Potato is tasty, healthy, and easy to prepare vegan-dish. Before putting it into the oven, it is twice wrapped in parchment paper and foil. Once baked for about an hour, these purple sweet potatoes can be eaten alone or served as a side dish. A native Japanese vegetable, these have a sturdier texture than the orange ones alongside a rich and slightly sweet flavor.
These are some of the irresistible food items of Hawaii, but the list is not an end. You’ll find many more such lip-smacking dishes and even desserts that are a must-try. Some of them worth mentioning are luau stew, shaved ice, croissada, and strawberry mochi.
Best Hawaiian Finger Foods: Laulau, Spam Musubi, Lomi Salmon
Best Hawaiian Fast Foods: Saimin, Huapia, Loco Moco
Best Hawaiian Party Foods: Pasteles, Loco Moco, Spam Musubi
Best Hawaiian Side Dishes: Baked Okinawan Sweet Potato, Chicken Long RIce
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