15 Classic Dishes of Hawaiian Cuisine - A Guide To Popular Food

Not just for beautiful beaches and water activities, Hawaii has also earned its name for traditional food and cocktail drinks
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Classic Dishes of Hawaiian Cuisine are

  1. Spam Musubi 
  2. Shave Ice
  3. Kalua Pork
  4. Plate Lunch
  5. Loco Moco
  6. Haupia Pie
  7. Manapua
  8. Saimin
  9. Huli Huli Chicken
  10. Garlic Shrimp
  11. Malasadas
  12. Lau Lau
  13. Poke
  14. Poi
  15. Lomi Lomi Salmon

What Food Is Hawaii Known For?

Usually, when we read or hear about classic Hawaiian cuisine, it is either Poke or Malasadas and Luau stew. But trust me when I say this, Hawaiian food is much more than just a bowl of tuna filled with soy sauce.

There are hundreds of cuisine on the Island that are delightfully tasty, for example, Hawaiian cocktails and drinks. Although it sounds like a regular concoction of drinks, but the flavours in it will have you all savoury in a mere moment.

For sure there are numerous alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails served on the Island, but the classic ones are the following-

  • Blue Hawaii
  • Mai Tai
  • Lava Flow
  • Pineapple iced tea
  • Virgin piña colada
  • Tropical smoothies

Pina Colada is one of the classic Hawaiian drinks, for a refreshing beach experience
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As you scroll down, you will realize the influence of Japanese condiments and flavours on Hawaiian dishes. It all started during the early colonial period when immigrants came to the Island as plantation workers and most of them were Japanese.

Hence, there is a hint of Asian effect in the recipe curated by the indigenous Hawaiian people. 

What do Hawaiians eat? Regarding palatable food, below is a list of 15 exciting Hawaiian dishes that will shock your tastebuds like never before.

1. Spam Musubi

A Hawaiian staple- Spam Musubi
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If you are wondering what to eat in Hawaii, Spam Musubi is your answer. It is an effortless lunch meal that is also a popular snack in the region.

Spam, one of the iconic preserved, canned meat is the main ingredient of the dish. It is said that canned meat was first invented in World War II as an easy, portable food that could be eaten straight away.

Once the dish was created, it became one of the household staples in the United States.

The process of making Musubi starts with cutting spam into thick strips and sandwiching it between sticky rice and wrapping it in nori.

In easy words, Spam Musubi is prepared with a slice of grilled Spam, blocked by rice on either side and wrapped together with nori in the tradition of Japanese onigiri.

And there's Spam Musubi ready to be served with a bowl of soy sauce and a glass of your favourite cocktail!

2. Shave Ice

Made of crushed ice, and sugar/ fruit-based syrups, shave ice is Japan's original ice desert brought to Hawaii in the early 1900s. Experiencing the delicacy is one of the fun things to do in Hawaii.

Shave Ice also known as snow cones is a popular dessert on the Island
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Hawaii is known for what food than Hawaiian shaved ice, aka snow cones, which is the prominent delicacy of the island. To make the desert, you need super fine crushed ice that almost resembles snow. Then, it is shaped into a ball and topped with your desired syrup.

But if you are an experimental foodie, try it over a scoop of ice cream, toasted coconut, condensed milk, or Li Hing Mui powder.

3. Kalua Pork- What Is It Made Of?

Kalua Pork served with white rice and greens. (photo credit: Kono's Northsore)
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Kalua Pork is a traditional and authentic Hawaiian dish made up of two ingredients; Pork butt & Hawaiian sea salt. This customary cuisine is cooked underground for 7-8 hours.

Firstly, the entire Pig is seasoned only with Hawaiian sea salt. Secondly, it is placed inside a large underground pit and covered with heated lava rocks. 

Then it is properly covered with Ti or Banana leaves to lock all the moisture inside which infuses an earthly smokey flavour into the meat. After a few hours, the pork looks crispy on the outside and all juicy on the inside.

How do you eat kalua pork?

Basically, it is served with shredded cabbage (cooked) and rice. But you can also slide it into a bun, with some cabbage slaw, teriyaki sauce, and grilled pineapple.

In addition to being eaten as a sandwich, kalua pork can also be served with salads, rice, or even on pizza.

4. Plate Lunch

Get all the greena and natural protein from the ingedient used in the Plate Lunch
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A standard plate lunch is one of the authentic food you can get on the islands. It is typically served with two scoops of white rice, macaroni salad and your choice of meat which could be either teriyaki beef, fried chicken or kalua pork.

Do you know the history of plate lunch?

Mobile meal services known as lunch wagons were introduced in the 1930s during the plantation era. They catered for labourers and served their lunch on compartmentalized paper plates instead of being served on bento boxes.

Though the plantation era ended in the 1950s, the plate lunch by then was already a staple to the Island. Fast forward to the 2020s, it is yet a crucial part of Hawaii's food culture.

5. Loco Moco

Loco Moco is a contemporary Hawaiian Cuisine
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Loco Moco is the concoction of all of your favourite comfort food from sizzling hamburger, warm gravy topped with a fried egg. And the key component is a plate full of white rice.

Are you hearing about Loco Moco for the first time? Do not worry, the classic Hawaiian dish taste like a perfect bite of your comfort burger. Once you taste it, there is no going back.

From the richness of the patty, the lusciousness of a fried egg, to the savoury goodness of the thick brown gravy, Loco Moco is a complete god-sent dish on its own.

What is loco moco gravy made from?

Traditionally, the loco moco gravy is made from a mixture of the following ingredients.

  • Beef stock
  • Shoyu
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • ketchup
  • Cornstarch

To make the gravy, first, you have to mix all of the above-mentioned items until the cornstarch has come off of the bottom. In the same pan, melt a tablespoon of butter to caramelize the onions. Saute it for about a minute then fry the mushrooms for another minute or two.

And voilà, your glossy gravy is ready!

6. Haupia Pie

A slice of chocolate haupia pie (photo courtesy: food blogger Jeanette)
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Haupia is a Hawaiian pudding made of cornstarch and coconut cream. If you think you have had a fair share of coconut cream pie then it is definitely your time to taste the richness of Hawaiian flavours topped with toasted coconut flakes, macadamia nuts, pineapple or even made with cocoa powder!

In a nutshell, remember your favourite pie with tender golden brown flaky pie crust, that has flavour good enough to eat a whole pie in a blink of an eye.

Now multiply the taste times 10, and there's the Haupia Pie, Coconutty, creamy and full of richness!!

7. Manapua

Manapua is the Hawaiian version of the Chinese Bao. Although the ingredients used in both dishes are similar, their taste and flavours vary.

Manapua - a sweet and savory delight from Maui, Hawaii
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Are you debating what to eat in Hawaii?? Try their Manapua to fill in your food cravings.

Be it an early morning or a late night craving, the variety of its flavours will fulfil your urge right away. Manapua is made with a slightly sweet dough stuffed with pork bbq which is then steamed to form a shiny outer skin surrounding the fluffy bread.

As you take a bite, your tongue will merge with the deliciousness of the sweet-savoury filling you didn't know was missing from all your life.

8. Saimin

Saimin is Hawaii's quintessential comfort food
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It is almost difficult for an amateur to find a difference between Saimin and Ramen. Although the soupy noodles look alike, their taste is totally different.

One peculiar thing about Saimin is that it's made with Chinese egg noodles and a clear Japanese broth. Just like other Asian-inspired food, Saimin was also introduced in Hawaii during the plantation era.

Workers from Japan, China, Philippines brought their home ingredients to Hawaii and merged it with the available goodies to prepare an easy soupy meal.

Fast forward a hundred years later, Saimin is popular and a staple in the area.

9. Huli Huli Chicken

Huli Huli Chicken
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Just imagine the heavenly taste of a grilled chicken marinaded in a huli huli sauce and grilled on a giant fire. That smokey deliciousness is the power of Hawaii's huli huli sauce which can be used to marinate chicken, pork or any vegetables of your choice.

“Huli” in the Hawaiian language means “turn”, so the name Huli Huli refers to the concept of turning the marinated meat over an open flame to enhance its flavours.

It has a striking resemblance to a savoury and sweet teriyaki sauce which is made with the following marinades

  • Pineapple juice
  • Soy sauce
  • Brown sugar
  • ketchup
  • Rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar  
  • Ginger and Garlic
  • Chicken
  • Grapeseed or canola oil, for brushing the grill grate

10. Garlic Shrimp

Garlic Butter Shrimp with Zucchini Noodles
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What is Hawaii known for food in the context of seafood?? Well, there are a variety of seafood options but the most popular one is the garlic shrimp.

If you scroll down the internet, you will find an abundance of pictures of tourists and locals flocking to the food trucks for plates of fresh shrimp sauteed in butter and oil with garlic.

Shrimp dishes usually look simple and it also cooks easily. It is like a block of cheese that goes with everything. You can serve it with scoops of rice or spread over pasta, it will taste good anyway.

The cool thing about garlic shrimp is they even make a great appetizer, just sprinkle some freshly chopped parsley and you are ready to engulf the iconic Hawaiian cuisine.

How to cook perfect Hawaiian garlic shrimp?

Heat your pan on a low flame and clean your large shrimp. Then toss it in with plenty of butter, minced garlic and salt and pepper. You can add in any seasoning of your choice or eat it as it is.

Just toss around for 2-3 minutes per side or until the shrimp turn pink and opaque, and they’re done.

Your shrimp is all cooked and ready to be served!

11. Malasadas

Hawaii's special fluffy Malasadas
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As mentioned above, the food culture in Hawaii is highly influenced by different countries because of the plantation work. Like others were inspired by Asian cuisine, Malasada was bought to Hawaii in 1878 by Portuguese labourers from Madeira and the Azores.

These no-hole doughnuts are like doughier beignets. You can eat it as it is or fill it up with local fruit jams. Whatever you choose to eat is the right choice when it comes to choosing the fluffy malasadas.

12. Lau Lau

A Hawaiian meal served with Lau Lau, rice and salads
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Lau Lau is a Polynesian dish consisting of cooked taro leaves filled with pork, fish or coconut cream. It is cooked underground in an imu oven for many hours.

After leaving it in the imu for hours, the final product is a smoky and tender pork that is indescribable.

Generally, lau lau is accompanied by salted butterfish and sweet potato. Although the meat is cooked and served inside the taro leaves, the leaves themselves are not meant to be eaten.

Their only purpose is to lock in the moisture for extra tenderness. If you like the taste of taro leaves, please do not let anything stop you.

But if you are okay with removing the outer layer, you can enjoy the intensely juicy, succulent pork.

13. Poke

A heavy portion of fresh salmon Poke
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Poke is a popular dish among the locals in Hawaii. It is a serving of raw diced salmon paired with green onions, round onions, chilli, kukui nuts, sesame seeds, ogo (seaweed), shoyu, and many other greens.

It is then topped with sea salt, sesame oil, or you add on extra flavours of your choice.

14. Poi

A bowl of Poi can be served with smoked meats, veggies or any fish of your choice
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Poi is a Hawaii must-try food. Prepared from the root of the taro (kalo) plant, it's sticky, sweet, and a bit sour. Poi, the staple of Hawaiian households is prepared like a thick liquid consistency which is often allowed to ferment.

You can pair a bowl of Poi with Kailua pork, Lomi-Lomi salmon, poke, smoked meats or other salted fish of your choice.

15. Lomi Lomi Salmon

Have you ever tried a Lomi Lomi Salman?
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Lomi-Lomi is a simple refreshing side dish in Hawaii that was introduced on the Island by early Western sailors. The cured salmon is healing and prepossesses loads of authentic flavours.

It is composed of sea salt-cured salmon, diced tomatoes, yellow onion, scallions and lime juice. It is then plated with Furikake to enhance the taste. If you are wondering what Furikake is- it is a Japanese condiment of sesame seeds, dried fish flakes and seaweed popular in Hawaii.

What does Lomi Lomi mean?

In Hawaii, lomi lomi means to knead, rub or massage. It references the salt rub used to cure the salmon to bring out its flavours.

Can you eat Lomi salmon while pregnant?

Yes, pregnant women can safely consume lomi lomi. Most of the time, pregnant women are suggested to avoid seafood because of its high mercury content. However, Salmon is considered to have low mercury than others which is relatively safe to eat during the expected months.