Hawaii, nearly three thousand miles from the West Coast of the United States, became our country’s fiftieth state on August 21, 1959. Despite the intervening fifty years, much of the Islands’ culture remains unknown to mainlanders. This is particularly true of the food of Hawaii, which has absorbed the varied culinary influences of its population perhaps more than any other U.S. state.
To commemorate Hawaii’s statehood I have compiled a list of fifty foods of Hawaii that will help the uninitiated learn what feeds this beautiful, far-off state.
Fish, of course, has always been a Hawaiian staple. Mahimahi (dolphin fish) is perhaps the most familiar fish to mainlanders. Real mahimahi has been overfished in recent years, however, and much of what appears on menus is a different variety of whitefish. Another local fish commonly found in markets and on menus is ono (wahoo), which is similar to king mackerel but more versatile in its pairings.
While mainlanders have learned to love sushi, poke (cubed fish salad) remains little known. Traditional poke consists of raw fish, aleae (sea salt), inamona (kikui nuts), and limu (a seaweed and ancient seasoning). Today, poke can be made from almost anything. Ahi (yellowfin tuna) is the most popular poke, found in Island stores raw, dried, or salt-cured, and served in restaurants as a pupu (appetizer).
One of my favorite kinds of poke uses opihi (limpets), which can come from the ocean or a freshwater stream.
One also finds edible ocean plants in the local diet. Ogo, a type of limu harvested mainly on specialized farms on the island of Molokai, is the most common seaweed eaten in Hawaii, and local groceries carry it both dry and fresh.
Sea asparagus, while not as popular as seaweed, is starting to catch on, partly due to its nutritional benefits.
Shortly after Captain James Cook landed on the Islands in 1778, Hawaii served as a provisioning stop for European and American sailors. When the Hawaiians feted Cook at a luau (a traditional feast) at Kealakekua Bay, on the Big Island, he was served, among other dishes, kalua pig – salted pork slow-cooked in an imu (a pit filled with heated stones).
But luau is also a dish made from coconut milk, long-stewed taro leaves – “luau” means “taro” in Hawaiian – and either squid, octopus, or chicken.
Taro also features in poi, perhaps Hawaii’s best-known food. Poi is a buoyant, tangy dish in which the tube root of the taro is fermented, baked, and then pounded into a paste. If any food verges on the sacred in Hawaii, it is poi.
Another Hawaiian dish is laulau, which today is found frequently on plate lunch menus alongside rice and macaroni salad. Laulau consists of salted butterfish and either chicken, beef, or pork, all of it wrapped in taro tops and steamed in ti leaves.
And although salmon is not an endemic fish, lomilomi salmon is often served at luaus and in plate lunches. Lomi refers to an Island massage technique applied to salted salmon mixed with tomatoes.
Huli-huli is a sweetly pungent marinade used with rotisserie chicken. Huli-huli chicken is popular at large gatherings and is often sold on the weekends by streetside or parking lot vendors.
Chili water is a common household seasoning in Hawaii. Made from hot red chili peppers, crushed garlic, salt, and vinegar, it goes well as a condiment on many dishes.
Although taro is by far the most important local tuber, the ‘uala (purple sweet potato) has long been significant to the Hawaiian diet. It also features in many ethnic recipes, particularly among Filipinos who often eat its leaves.
Cook’s arrival paved the way for others, who inevitably brought with them their own foods and culinary predilections. The Chinese were the first migrant group to appear, arriving in the 1770s to work on local sugar plantations. The Japanese were next, also to become plantation workers, followed by Portuguese from the Azores islands, and then the Filipinos. These groups introduced many dishes that have long been incorporated into the local food landscape.
One of numerous Chinese contributions to local cuisine, but perhaps the most influenced by local tastes, is manapua. These baked, baseball-size Chinese buns are traditionally made with pork, but in Hawaii they come with various fillings. Long rice is another Chinese-inspired dish, though this, too, has been adapted to local tastes. Consisting of cellophane noodles, onions, and usually chicken, this is yet another luau staple.
The Japanese, too, have contributed significantly to the local diet, and bento boxes, sushi restaurants, ramen shops, and even katsudon restaurants are easily found here. Shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) is a seasoning that has grabbed a foothold in Hawaii. Hawaiian shoyu lacks the alcohol that Japanese shoyu contains, and is also slightly saltier. Shoyu chicken, shoyu pork, and shoyu-based dressings are all popular in Hawaii.
Portuguese food also holds great importance in Hawaii. Laborers from the Azores brought with them a European cuisine, but their most widely consumed contribution is the malasada (deep-fried doughnut).
When the first Filipino immigrants arrived, in the decade preceding World War II, they introduced a unique cuisine that was different from anything the Islands had seen. Local people embraced it, and one commonly finds adobo (stewed chicken or pork) and pork guisantes (stewed pork with peas and tomatoes) at many food outlets.
More recently, Korean cuisine has made headway into the Hawaiian food scene, especially on Oahu. Kim chee (spicy pickled vegetables made with garlic and red chili pepper) is widely available, and kalbi (thin slices of grilled beef marinated in Korean soy sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger, and sesame oil) is a popular plate lunch item.
Another local favorite is musubi. Wander into any convenience store, farmer’s market, or local grocery, and you’ll find musubi. Musubi is usually a slab of Spam atop a brick of salted rice, held together with dried seaweed. Spam, however, can be replaced by hot dogs halved lengthwise, or it can be dressed up, for example, with teriyaki sauce.
Spam is also eaten in saimin, a plantation-era noodle dish that typically includes omelet shreds, chopped green onions, fish cake (oden), and char siu (Chinese barbecued pork) in a savory fish broth. Nobody is sure whether the Chinese or Japanese in Hawaii developed the dish, but its popularity is indisputable: many local McDonald’s have it on their menu.
Snacking is big in Hawaii, and a world of small bites is easily found. Pipikaula (salted, dried beef often marinated in soy sauce) has been around since the mid-1800s, and was a common hip-companion of the pañiolas (Hawaiian cowboys). Another snack, although primarily consumed by tourists, is macadamia nuts. Native to Australia, and a relatively new commercial crop in Hawaii, they are also manufactured into healthy cooking and salad oils.
And Hawaii is a paradise for sweets. From andagi (Okinawan fried doughnuts) to shave ice (flavored syrup poured over finely shaved ice), sweets are ubiquitous. Mochi is a Japanese contribution. This short-grained, glutinous rice is cooked, pounded, and made into cakes that can be enjoyed plain, flavored, or filled with sweet pastes. Then there are desserts based on the Islands’ exotic fruits. Examples include haupia (a firm coconut milk pudding) and the various forms that lilikoi (passionfruit) takes: syrups, jams, sauces, drinks, fillings, frostings, cookies, and cakes. While crack seed is not a dessert per se, these colorful dried fruits are favorites among kids.
Another fruit is the Ohelo berry. Native to Hawaii, it grows particularly well in volcanic soil at high elevations. The Big Island is home to many Ohelo berry orchards, and also to the Poha berry, which is tarter. Both are used in jams and glazes, and the latter especially in ice creams.
With all this lip-smacking food, you’ll want something to wash it down with. Hawaii’s famous Kona coffee should do the trick. The high elevations in the north and south districts of Kona, on the Big Island, are best suited for growing Kona coffee beans, and its rarity in the marketplace results in a high price.
More than almost any other U.S. state, Hawaii’s history can be read in its food. Like the geologist who studies the substance and history of the earth, along with the processes that shape it, an open-minded eater can learn much about Hawaii’s past and those who have helped make the Islands a paradise – of abundance, of flavors, and of diversity.