Thanks to the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese immigration over the years, Hawaii's food scene has always had a fusion element. And though you can find James Beard-nominated chefs cooking thoughtful local food, there will always be big love for the local comfort foods.
Here are the classic you should try next time you visit Hawaii:
Nearly every major ethnic group has left its mark on this ramen-like dish. Classic saimin starts with a Japanese-like dashi broth and Chinese lo mein-like noodles. There are all sorts of toppings from Portuguese linguica sausage, Filipino pancit, and Korean kimchi.
You might have only had boiled peanuts in the Deep South but they're a traditional pupu (aka appetizer) in Hawaii. Brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants, they're usually made with star anise.
This dish has become such a big deal in the continental states (aka "mainland") that it probably needs no introduction. But just in case: the Hawaiian word poke (poh-kay), means to cut or chunk and the classic version was raw fish mixed with local sea salt, limu (a seaweed), and kukui nuts. These days, shoyu poke (with soy sauce, scallions, and sesame) is the most common, but there are all sorts of versions made with all sorts of seafood and even beef.
Brought to Hawaii by the Portuguese, the yeasty, airy donuts known as malasadas are made daily at numerous bakeries. Purists insist you eat malasadas plain (unfilled and sugared), but they're often filled with local flavors like passion fruit or coconut or dipped in li hing mui (salted plum powder) sugar. For more about malasadas, here is what to look for and where to get our favorites.
The word is a shortening of a Hawaiian phrase that translates as "delicious pork thing" — and that's exactly what these are. Inspired by Chinese pork buns, these yeasted buns can be steamed or baked and are traditionally filled with char sui (BBQ pork) or kalua pig.
Musubi are like a long-lost cousin to the Japanese onigiri except in Hawaii, they're usually filled with SPAM and cooked in teriyaki sauce. And the classic place to get it is at 7-Eleven. No, seriously.
Huli Huli Chicken
Huli huli chicken is what you would get if teri (aka teriyaki) chicken married barbecue chicken. It's sweet and tangy, with plenty of ginger, garlic, and soy — and it's delicious. Huli means "turn" in Hawaiian, so huli huli is literally "turn turn" — fitting for rotisserie-style chicken cooked over local mesquite. This recipe is a simplified riff on huli huli chicken that you can do on your grill (assuming you too don't own a rotisserie).
Shave ice is the same basic idea as a snow cone but lighter and airier because it's made with shaved rather than crushed ice. You can find it pretty much on every corner and while traditionalists swear by Oahu's Matsumoto or Waiola, we're fans of Ailana because their syrups are homemade. Here is of our list of where to find the best shave ice in Hawaii.
Just to be crystal clear, "Hawaiian food" refers to food that native Hawaiians ate. That means if you're talking about anything else (pretty much everything else), go ahead and refer to it as "local food." Some traditional Hawaiian food to look out of is kalua pork (cooked in an imu); squid luau (squid cooked with taro and coconut milk); poi (mashed taro); laulau (fish and pork cooked wrapped in taro and ti leaves); and haupia (a coconut custard), which we love when it's turned into pie form.
Any other must-eat Hawaiian foods that we missed in our list? Let us know in the comments below!
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