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These Foods to Try in Hawaii Show How Magical the Islands Are

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Editor’s note: We asked Hermani Barnes, who grew up in Maui, to share the dishes that make Hawaiian cuisine so unique and special.

Discover one of the most unique culinary experiences in the U.S. with these wonderful foods to try in Hawaii, which bring breathtaking fusions, beautiful colors, and intriguing stories to the dinner table in abundance.

Hawaii is renowned for being a place where opposites come together. It’s where the awesome power of nature rubs shoulders with manmade cityscapes and the waters of the Pacific lap against golden beaches and rugged cliff faces. This is very much reflected in the state’s cuisine.

The fresh produce and seafood, coupled with influences from several different continents, have created a cuisine that is colorful as it is creative, and diverse as it is delicious.

These are Hawaii’s must-try dishes, for all times of day. Try as many as you can when you visit this magical place.

Appetizers and Sides

Ahi Poke

Hawaiian cuisine’s signature dish, ahi poke, is prepared with soy sauce, green onions, sesame oil, and fresh, raw ahi tuna. Poke refers to the method of cutting fish into bite-sized cubes and implies “to cut crosswise into pieces.”

Hawaiian Tuna Poke
Ahi poke, iStock.com/AlexPro9500

The dish has been a staple of Hawaiian food for many years. It was first created by fishermen as a snack using the cut-offs from their catch.

Although there are many different types of ahi poke available today, the classic dish is still a favorite among both residents and tourists. It’s a light, delicious appetizer that beautifully displays the local, fresh ingredients that are essential to Hawaiian cooking.

Lomi Lomi Salmon

Salmon that has been salted, diced, and combined with tomatoes and onion is used to make the traditional Hawaiian side meal known as lomi lomi salmon.

Lomi lomi salmon
Lomi lomi salmon, iStock.com/LarisaBlinova

The term “lomi lomi,” which is Hawaiian for “massage,” alludes to the method of gently massaging or kneading the ingredients together. This method is thought to have been introduced to Hawaii by Polynesian explorers who took their culinary customs with them.

The dish is frequently served at luaus and other Hawaiian feasts, and thanks to its flavorful, vibrant appearance, it is a favorite side for many dishes.

Kalua Pig

Hawaiian cuisine is known for its slow-roasted pork dish called kalua pig. The word “Kalua” refers to the technique of slow-cooking the pig in an imu, a type of underground oven.

Before being put in the imu with hot rocks, the pig is first covered in ti leaves and scrubbed with Hawaiian sea salt. Burlap, soil, and banana leaves are then placed on top of the imu to help keep the heat and steam inside.

It’s then cooked for a number of hours until it is juicy and delicate. After being cooked, the flesh is shredded and either served as a main course or as an appetizer with sweet potato or taro chips. The rich, smoky flavor of kalua pork makes it a popular dish.

Haupia

Haupia is a traditional Hawaiian dessert that has been adored for many years. It is so delicious, in fact, that it is frequently requested as a side dish.

Haupia
Haupia, iStock.com/NNehring

It is a coconut pudding with a dense texture that is frequently served cut into pieces at luaus and other special events. Haupia is typically made by heating and stirring the main ingredients-coconut milk, sugar, and cornstarch-until they thicken and set.

Haupia can also be made with pandan leaves, which give the dish a distinctive taste and a vibrant green color. It is a traditional dish from Hawaii that is straightforward yet delectable.

Pupu Platter

A platter of small, bite-sized dishes is usually filled with a variety of small, traditional Hawaiian appetizers known as pupu. Pupu is a Hawaiian word that means “appetizer” or “snack.”

Pupu Platter
Pupu platter, iStock.com/Angela Cook

The dish is frequently offered at social events like luaus and other celebrations, as well as in eateries. Spring rolls, teriyaki beef skewers, chicken wings, crab rangoon, and other finger foods are frequently included on the plate.

The platter, which is frequently created to be shared among a group of people, is a popular method to sample a variety of flavors and textures in one sitting.

Mains

Lau Lau

A typical Hawaiian meal called lau lau typically consists of fish or pork wrapped in taro or ti leaves and steamed until tender. The dish is thought to have its roots in the Hawaiian Islands, where it was customarily cooked in an imu, a cave oven made of hot rocks and banana leaves.

Lau lau (wrapped in leaves) with an assortment of other dishes (ahi poke, lomi lomi salmon, tako poke, kalua pork, rice, and macaroni salad) – iStock.com/bonchan

The leaves also help to keep the meat moist and tender while giving it a distinctive taste and aroma. Usually, rice and macaroni salad are given with the dish.

Poke Bowl

Fresh ahi tuna, rice, seaweed, and a variety of garnishes like avocado, edamame, and cucumber make up poke bowls, which are famously created in Hawaii.

Poke bowl
Poke bowl, iStock.com/bhofack2

The dish carries many similarities to sushi, and many sushi lovers run to poke bowls as an alternative option. Poke, which means “to cut,” describes the action of slicing the tuna into tiny slivers. The portions of the bowls can be very filling and great for afternoon lunch.

The best part of this dish is definitely the wide arrangement of toppings and sauces that you can use to customize your poke bowl.

Loco Moco

A hearty Hawaiian meal, loco moco consists of rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and gravy. The dish is thought to have started as a means to feed hungry surfers in Hilo, Hawaii, in the 1940s.

Loco Moco
Loco moco, iStock.com/bhofack2

According to legend, a group of adolescents gave the dish the name “loco moco” because they thought it looked “crazy.” Since then, Hawaii residents have grown to love this dish, which is now served in many local eateries. It is a delicious meal that is suitable for breakfast, lunch, or supper, and it’s as filling as it is satisfying.

Pipikaula

Traditional Hawaiian dried beef dishes like pipikaula are frequently eaten with rice or as pupus. Pipikaula, which translates to “beef rope” in Hawaiian, is the name given to the beef’s preparation, which involves drying it in long strips that mimic ropes.

The recipe dates back to the early 19th century, when Hawaiian cowboys, known as paniolos, would dry strips of beef in the sun or over an open fire to preserve it for later use.

Before being dried, the beef is usually marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, brown sugar, and other spices creating a bold, sweet, and savory flavor.

Desserts

Shave Ice

Prepared by shaving a block of ice and then topping it with different flavored syrups, shave ice is popular on the Hawaiian streets. The ice is typically very finely shaved to give it a snow-like texture.

Hawaiian Shave Ice
Shave ice, iStock.com/Maridav

Japanese immigrants brought shave ice from Japan to Hawaii where they began selling it from carts in the early 20th century. Today, both locals and tourists enjoy it, particularly during the sweltering summer months.

Malasadas

Malasadas is a type of Portuguese donut that has been adopted into Hawaiian cuisine. Made of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter, and baked to perfection, before being covered in sugar and served.

Malasadas
Malasadas, iStock.com/Wirestock

Malasada is typically filled with some sort of custard, chocolate, or fruit. You can find these treats in a lot of bakeries and cafes all around the archipelago.

Haupia Pie

The beloved Haupia pie typically has a graham cracker crust and a coconut pudding filling. Coconut milk, sugar, and cornstarch are combined to make the popular haupia mixture, which is then cooked until it thickens and is put into the crust.

Haupia and Chocolate Pie
Haupia Pie, iStock.com/Alleko

Normally the pie is topped with whipped cream or toasted coconut and served chilled. Haupia pie is a particular favorite for coconut lovers.

Mochi

Mochi is a sweet Japanese confection made from rice flour. The flour, sugar, and water are combined to make a dough, which is then steamed or baked.

Mochi
Mochi, iStock.com/bhofack2

The final mochi can be molded into different shapes and filled with fruit or bean paste that has been sweetened.

Japanese carried their mochi tradition over to the islands. Today, these sweet, chewy treats are commonly eaten on their own, or as a topping for other desserts.

Other dishes worth mentioning

Poi

Poi is a typical Hawaiian food. Usually offered as a side dish, it has a thick and sticky consistency. It is made from taro root, which is steamed until it is soft and then mashed with water to produce a paste, which is used to make poi. The paste is next allowed to ferment for a few days so that the tangy flavor can emerge.

Poi
Poi, iStock.com/Eric Broder Van Dyke

Poi is thought to have been introduced to the Hawaiian islands by the Polynesians who first settled on the islands.

Spam Musubi

In Hawaii, a slice of grilled spam is placed on top of a bowl of rice and enveloped in a strip of nori, a dried seaweed, thus making Spam Musabi.

Spam Musubi
Spam musubi, iStock.com/bhofack2

Onigiri, a Japanese rice ball delicacy, served as the dish’s primary inspiration. A piece of Spam is cooked until it is browned, then it is placed on top of a block of sushi rice that has been seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt to make Spam Musubi.

The meal is then prepared by wrapping the rice and Spam in a strip of nori. In Hawaii, Spam Musubi has come to be recognized as a distinct snack and is widely available at gas stations and small shops.

Manapua

Manapua, a steamed pastry with char siu pork or other savory fillings, is the Hawaiian equivalent of the Chinese cha siu bao. Azuki bean paste and other sweet toppings are also options for manapua.

Chinese immigrants are responsible for the transportation of the buns to Hawaii. It has ingredients such as wheat flour, sugar, and yeast, and sometimes is customized to the chef’s liking.

Saimin

Saimin, a type of noodle broth, is a mainstay of Hawaiian cooking. It has a distinctive fusion of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Hawaiian tastes and is comparable to Japanese ramen.

Saimin
Saimin, iStock.com/IslandLeigh

The dish is usually served with thin wheat noodles, sliced char siu pork, kamaboko (fish cake), green onions, and occasionally vegetables like cabbage and bean sprouts in a clear broth.

Saimin was developed during Hawaii’s plantation period when various ethnic groups collaborated and shared culinary customs.

Chicken Long Rice

Shredded chicken, bean thread noodles, ginger, and green onions are the main ingredients in the classic Hawaiian meal known as “Chicken Long Rice.” It is thought to have been inspired by Chinese chicken noodle broth, but it was altered to suit local preferences and ingredients.

Chicken Long Rice
Chicken long rice, iStock.com/bonchan

Since the noodle resembles long, thin strands of rice, it earned the moniker “long rice.” It is a common practice to offer chicken long rice on special occasions and during family get-togethers.


Few cuisines bring together flavors from all over the world quite like Hawaiian food does. Combined with the archipelago’s jaw-dropping geography and proximity to the fresh seafood in the Pacific, and you have a recipe for a series of dishes quite like no other.

When you visit Hawaii, really embrace the cuisine. Try as many native dishes as you can, and give more than a little time to the markets and food vendors, to truly take in those authentic flavors.

The foods of Hawaii have so much to offer, and this list really is the tip of the iceberg. Wherever you find yourself on the islands, great food is never too far away from you!

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Authors

  • Hermani Barnes is a freelance writer who grew up on the beautiful island of Maui. She is passionate about sharing Hawaiian cuisine and culture with the world.

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  • Hey there! We are Dale and Doina, the founders of Nomad Paradise. We traveled full-time for over three years, and while we now have a home base in the U.K., continue to take trips abroad to visit new places and try new cuisines and foods. Our food guides are curated with the guidance of local foodies, and their contribution is indicated under each article. We also cook the foods we try abroad, and you can discover how to make them in our 'recipes from around the world' category.

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