Most travelers think Hawaii and it’s all visions of surfing, hiking, and snorkeling in a lush tropical setting. But when you’re a food lover like us, Hawaii brings to mind a super unique food culture spanning from local eats to fine dining.
It's likely no surprise that here at Salt & Wind our sense of taste is what excites us most to explore the world. On a trip to Hawaii, for example, it isn’t to say that watching the sun set over Diamond Head or catching a few early morning waves at Waikiki is anything short of incredible. It’s just that if you ask us about our favorite island memories, we'll go on and on about how there is some of the best food in Hawaii.
Thanks to the many ethnic groups that made their way to this corner of the Pacific to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations, the local food you see today is a delicious mix of Native Hawaiian, Asian (Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino), American, European (mostly Portuguese), and Latin (Puerto Rican) ingredients and preparations.
And the uniqueness of Hawaii’s food scene doesn’t stop at the food- it also includes the way locals talk about it. Going back again to Hawaii's plantation era, these different ethnic groups, each with its own language, had to find a way to communicate with each other. As a result, Hawaiian pidgin – aka Hawaiian Creole – was born.
The language very much still exists today and you’ll hear it spoken in casual conversation and woven into menus. That's why, if you’re going to visit, it’s helpful to know a few of these local food terms so you can get the best food in Hawaii.
Here are the 12 local food terms from traditional Hawaiian words to local slang that you need to know before your next trip to Hawaii:
Also cheekily spelled, "grindz," this word is local slang for food and you'll see it used a lot on menus and in advertising. The word is often paired with ono, meaning delicious (more on that below) to describe the best food in Hawaii. Use the terms to talk about your favorite plate of garlic shrimp (pictured above) or a beachside potluck, where there were plenty (aka choke) grinds.
Pronounced oh-no, this is the local word for "delicious." For added emphasis, include so as in something is "so ono," like the Vietnamese-inspired grinds at The Pig and the Lady. Onolicious is a quirky variation on ono that means the same thing, but is somehow even more fun to say. Oh, and heads up that ono is also the name for a type of firm, white fish mostly caught in Hawaiian waters.
Another local slang word you may encounter in Hawaii is choke, meaning a lot or large amount. You might use it in a sentence along the lines of "there was choke poke at the potluck yesterday."
In Hawaii, when you are finished with something -- be it a meal or work -- you say you are pau. The term even extends to happy hour because that time of day, which is known as pau hana locally. For your own pau hana at home, try this Daiquiri Moderno Cocktail from our friends at the Luana Bar at the Fairmont Kea Lani on Maui.
Brok da mout
This phrase is spelled a few different ways, but the meaning is always the same: that whatever you just ate was incredibly satisfying. It's a local slang term you throw out when something is even more delicious than ono can describe. For example, here's where we you should go for for some brok da mout malasadas – aka Portuguese donuts.
Even if you've never visited Hawaii, you've likely come across this term that was oh-so popular during the tiki era. Pupus are appetizers or snacks and are often served at pau hana. They’re also a common presence at social gatherings, where you will likely find crispy wontons with spicy mustard and soy or a sweet chili sauce, sashimi, lumpia (Flilipno egg rolls served with a vinegar dipping sauce), and much more.
Locals use this word to describe anything that wasn’t good, including food. But don’t worry, you’ll never see any junk food recs (or any other recs) from us here.
And after a full day of nibbles and feasting and you feel a food coma coming on, you’ll want to use this island term: kanak attack – aka the satisfying feeling you have after you’ve explored every foodie corner in Hawaii in search of choke onolicious grinds.
As you can see, the food in Hawaii reflects its multi-cultural history. On that note, below are some common ingredients and preparations to also know about and try when you see them in a cafe, restaurant, supermarket, or side of the road stand:
Huli means turn in Hawaiian and, though huli-huli has been trademarked, it is often used to refer to a teriyaki-like, smoky-basted chicken that is grilled and turned rotisserie style over kiawe (a local Hawaiian mesquite) charcoal. In Hawaii, whenever there is a community fundraiser, you are almost guaranteed to find this slightly sweet, smoky BBQ’d chicken. To find some huli-huli, look for billowy smoke wafting from large grills on the side of the road.
Before the sticky, taro root (aka kalo, in Hawaiian) paste became a staple at luau buffets, poi was a staple of the Native Hawaiian diet, and eaten by scooping your fingers into a community bowl, or calabash. Traditionally, poi is made from pounded and mashed taro root and you’ll usually see it served as a side or as part of a plate lunch.
Also known as coconut pudding, haupia has also become a trendy island dessert flavor. The most common ways you'll find haupia is as a shave ice flavor, combined with chocolate in a slice of pie, or even as a creamy gelato at one of our local favorites, Via Gelato in Honolulu.
Traditionally spelled, kālua, it is a Hawaiian cooking term meaning “to cook in an underground oven.” In Hawaii, an underground oven is called an imu, and steam is used to cook the food. Pork is prepared this way, though since most don’t have access to an imu, a slow cooker is a good – and despite its name — quicker substitute.
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Photo by Natalie Jeffcott