Hawaiian Food Culture: 9 Popular Dishes You Must Try

hawaii food culture
Delicious and fresh Hawaiian food
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Hawaii is a marvelous melting pot of cultures, with Filipino, Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and many other influences. No ethnicity holds the majority, making for a beautiful blend of traditions and customs. The same holds true of Hawaii’s food culture. Each new wave of immigrants brought with them tastes of home, making Hawaii a feast for both the mouth and the eyes.

Much of Hawaiian food culture is based around the taro plant, growing so strongly in Hawaii that ancient history suggests the first Hawaiian, Haloa, originated from the taro plant. Every part of the plant is used in cooking, from its root to its broad leaves.

You’ll also find an abundance of incredible seafood dishes, smoked meats, and unique twists on cultural favorites making their way onto menus. Exploring Hawaii food culture is an experience in itself, so sit back and enjoy our 9 popular dishes you must try.

1. Saimin

hawaiian food saimin
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Cost: $5 at McDonald’s to $30 at high-end restaurants (all prices in USD)
Where to find: Nearly everywhere that sells food

The perfect blend of ramen, Chinese egg-noodle soup, and Hawaiian traditions, saimin is packed as full of history as it is with flavor. While the exact origins will likely remain a mystery, it has deep roots to immigrants from China and Japan during the plantation era. Since, immigrants and locals have continuously fine-tuned this comforting soup into the glory it is today.

You’ll find broth and noodles flavored with green onions, kimchi, kamaboko (fish cakes), and ham or pork in most varieties. From here, the fun begins. Each restaurant has its signature toppings, with options including spam, mushrooms, egg, shrimp, bok choy, and wontons. 

From a young age, saimin becomes a distinctive part of Hawaiian’s lives. There is nothing like the homemade variety from the grandparents when you’re feeling down. Yet, you’ll also find saimin everywhere, from fast-food chains to fine-dining restaurants. Prices range from $5 for a quick bowl at McDonald’s to $30 at premium restaurants. However, at most places, you can grab a quality bowl for $10 – $15. Do your best to eat like a local and enjoy your saimin using chopsticks and a spoon, then finish by drinking leftover broth straight from the bowl.

2. Poke

poke bowl traditional hawaiian food
Photo by aoba eihara/Getty Images

Cost: Between $7 – $10 per serving
Where to find: Nearly everywhere that sells food

You’re probably familiar with poke. Having taken the world by storm over the past few years, poke bowls are the hottest trend and are finding their way onto menus across the globe. However, you haven’t truly had a poke bowl until you’ve feasted on one from its place of origin – Hawaii.

Poke, meaning ‘to cut crosswise into pieces,’ has been around in its simplest form in Hawaii for ages. It’s believed to have been invented by Polynesians who would season raw fish with salt and seaweed, adding flavoring and preserving the fish. Yet, the name poke only came to be in the 1960s and 70s and took hold in the early 90s when an annual poke contest was introduced.

No matter, the poke Hawaiians know and love today is made of chopped seafood, usually tuna, mixed with onion sitting on a bed of rice. What takes Hawaiian poke to the next level is their incredible access to fresh fish and their commitment to marinating the seafood. Ask any Hawaiian, and it’d be a significant disgrace not to marinate seafood in soy sauce and sesame oil for at least 15 minutes, if not much longer.

Don’t go looking for your perfect Instagram picture, though, as poke bowls are made to taste great, not look great. You won’t find the intricate and thoughtfully placed pieces of tuna, but we promise it’ll be the best poke you’ve ever tried.

3. Luau Stew

luau stew in hawaii
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Cost: Between $10 – $15 for a bowl at a restaurant, for the same price, you can make a giant pot at home
Where to find: Nearly everywhere that sells food

Upon first sip, there’s no doubt luau stew will warm your soul and put a smile on your face. Made from slowly cooking luau leaves from the taro plant seasoned with garlic, salt, onions, and cloves, it’s Hawaii food culture at its finest. The stew can be left here for vegetarians. Or, fish, beef, or lamb can be added, and by slow cooking, the meat turns incredibly tender.

Finding luau stew on the Hawaiian Islands is easy. Most popular takeout food shops, cafes, and local mom and pop counter shops serve luau stew, and each has its own take on it. Some may add coconut milk to add a creamy taste to the stew; others may add seaweed, ginger, or squid. If you’re invited to a celebration, there’s no doubt you’ll be served luau stew. It’s a staple at parties, celebrations, holiday dinners, and any other reason for gathering.

If you can’t find yourself a family home to visit, one of the best places in Hawaii to try luau stew is Yama’s Fish Market in Honolulu, on Oahu. Loved by locals (and tourists who are in the know), they specialize in all sorts of traditional Hawaiian food, but their luau stew is an absolute winner. They only do takeout, so grab your bowl and head to the beach for a feast with a view!

4. Loco Moco

loco moco hawaii food culture
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Cost: $5 – $8 for a heaping plate
Where to find: Nearly everywhere that sells food

Sometimes the best foods come from classic teenage ingenuity, and this especially true for the loco moco. A relatively new dish, by Hawaiian standards, the loco moco came to existence in 1949 when a group of teenagers eating at Lincoln Grill restaurant in Hilo were after a cheap and filling food that wasn’t a sandwich. They decided that a bed of rice, topped with a burger and smothered in gravy, was a perfect fix – and from here, there was no turning back.

The name loco moco comes from one of the teenagers whose nickname was crazy, or loco in Spanish. Moco was added simply because it rhymes with loco. While you might hear locals telling you that ‘moco’ means burger, in truth, it means snot or booger, so yes, you’re technically eating a crazy booger. 

Fast forward to today and loco moco is well integrated into Hawaii food culture. It’s served at nearly every restaurant and take-a-way shop in Hawaii and now includes a sunny-side-up egg. You’ll also find restaurants offer many variations to this classic dish, and instead, you can opt for bacon, tofu, kalua pork, shrimp, oysters, chicken, and other meats. Just make sure to clear your schedule before trying one, as they’re known to induce naps.

5. Manapua

manapua hawaii food
Photo by kenji ross/flickr

Cost: $2 – $3 per manapua
Where to find: Any Chinese restaurant, markets, bakeries, and hole-in-the-wall shops

Another absolute treat brought over during the plantation era is the manapua. Evolving from the Chinese char siu baos, or bao bun as they’re more commonly known, manapuas are bigger and slightly sweeter than their Chinese counterparts. The name itself is rather entertaining, coming from mea ʻono puaʻa, which means ‘delicious pork thing’’, and Mauna puaa, which means ‘mountain of pork.’

For the most traditional manapua, opt for the char siu variety, which is fatty pork that has been marinated in char siu seasoning (cane sugar, salt, powdered soy sauce, 5-spice powder, garlic powder, and onion powder) then roasted. This leaves a perfectly sweet and salty taste and goes perfectly with the fluffy bun. Once you’ve tried the char siu manapua, you have full permission to go crazy and try the many other varieties. Savory types include everything from kalua pork to chicken curry, and sweet varieties include sweet coconut, black sugar coconut, and sweet potato.

When you’re in need of a snack or light lunch, you won’t be hard-pressed to find yourself a manapua. They’re served at nearly every one of Hawaii’s Chinese restaurants, as well as many takeout shops and bakeries. Keep your eye out for little hole-in-the-wall shops, with a small sign for manapuas and a delicious smell wafting your way.

6. Lomi Lomi Salmon

lomi lomi salmon hawaii food culture
Photo by LarisaBlinova/Getty Images

Cost: $4 – $6 for a small side, $10 with rice
Where to find: Nearly everywhere that sells food

Unlike some of the other dishes on this list, lomi lomi salmon is as beautiful as it is delicious. Diced tomatoes, green onions, and raw salmon or fish bring beautiful colors and fresh flavors to your plate, add in avocado, and you have a picture-perfect dish with complimenting reds and greens. It’s easy to mistake lomi lomi salmon for a fine salsa, yet it tastes like a refreshing salmon-tomato salad. 

The name lomi lomi salmon means ‘to massage or kneed,’ which refers to the salmon and other ingredients being gently mixed and massaged by hand. You can find lomi lomi salmon nearly everywhere that serves Hawaiian food, from small corner cafes to fine-dining restaurants. It’s usually served as part of a larger meal with a side of poi or rice, although it can be enjoyed as a delicious snack, appetizer, or light meal on its own. Lomi lomi salmon is so popular you can even find large containers at Costco grocery stores.

7. Pastele

pastele hawaii food
Photo by Dtarazona/Wikimedia Commons

Cost: $4 on its own, $10 – $14 as part of a larger meal
Where to find: Puerto Rican restaurants, roadside stalls

If you’ve never tried a pastele, they’re tough to describe. They may look like tamales yet taste nothing like them. To describe a pastele, we’ll work from the middle outwards. Most varieties are filled with seafood, pork, chicken, or vegetables. This is surrounded by plantain, green bananas, and root vegetables that have been grounded into a dough. From here, the dough is wrapped in a banana leaf (or ti-leaf for the authentic Hawaiian version) and steamed until they’re generously tender. When ready, they’re typically served with gandule rice, a rice dish made with sofrito and pigeon peas, or a side salad for a less calorie-rich option.

While pastels are a well-loved tradition in Hawaii, especially for those with Puerto Rican heritage, you could easily spend weeks sampling the food in Hawaii and not come across a pastele. Some restaurants, like Jackie’s Diner in Honolulu, specialize in Puerto Rican food and serve this labor-intensive dish. However, your best bet is to keep an eye open for roadside stalls. If you see a few locals hanging around a hard-to-read roadside sign, chances are you’ve just hit the jackpot with homemade pasteles.

8. Kalua Pork

kalua pig underground oven
Photo by crisserbug/Getty Images

Cost: Around $12 per pound, $4 for a small serving
Where to find: Nearly everywhere that sells food

By now, you’ve heard us mention Kalua pork a few times. It’s another staple in Hawaii food culture and has been around since the beginning of time. Its roots date back to about 300 A.D., when Polynesians first landed on the islands and brought pigs and other animals with them. Yet, it was such a prized possession; they were only cooked for celebrations and very special occasions – and even then, women weren’t allowed to eat it.

Today, the method of cooking remains largely unchanged. A pit is dug in the ground, lava rock coals are placed at the bottom, the pig, wrapped in ti-leaves, is placed on top, and then it’s all covered with more dirt to hold in the heat. After hours of cooking, the pig is infused with smoky aromas, leaving the most incredible taste.

At an authentic Hawaiian gathering, you won’t find much else served with Kalua pork. Usually just steamed rice and taro root paste. However, if you go to a luau or a Hawaiian restaurant, you’ll find Kalua pork in a range of dishes and served with other traditional foods.

9. Poi

poi tradition hawaii food
Photo by Cheryl Hammond/flickr

Cost: $4 for a scoop; however usually comes as a side
Where to find: Nearly everywhere that sells food

No Hawaiian food list would be complete with poi. However, as this is one dish you likely won’t be running home to tell your friends and families about, we’ve kept it last on the list. Poi is more of a compliment to a meal, much like rice or bread, compared to being eaten on its own. This is probably why tourists become very confused why Hawaiians love this purple, starchy goop.

In terms of taste, there’s not much to rave about. Similar to the taro root, you’ll find a starchy yet somewhat sweet and fresh taste. To avoid looking like a ‘just-off-the-plane’ tourist, make sure to eat poi on the same spoon or finger as salty foods. Lomi lomi salmon, salted fish, Kalua pork, and other smoked meats and vegetables are perfect companions.

To make poi, the root of a taro plant is steamed or baked, then pounded. While being pounded, small amounts of water are added until the perfect sticky pudding-like consistency is reached. This ‘perfect consistency’ is up for debate, and there are no set rules for how thick or thin poi should be. Instead, the thickness is measured by how many fingers are needed to scoop a mouthful of poi – one finger, two fingers, or three fingers. And yes, it’s normal to eat poi with your fingers!

FAQ’s about Hawaii food culture

hawaiian plate
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What is the most popular food in Hawaii?

Without a doubt, the most popular food in Hawaii is poi. Simply because it’s served with absolutely everything. Think of it like rice in Asian countries or potatoes in North America – it always ends up on your plate. This purple starchy goop is made with the root of taro plant and is meant to be eaten at the same time as salty meats and fish. For many parents, it’s the first solid food they’ll serve their baby, and it becomes a well-loved sidekick for life.

What is a typical breakfast in Hawaii?

Ask any Hawaiian, and their answer will be the same, Portuguese sausage with eggs and rice. It’s basically a loco moco; however, swapping out the burger pattie for a sausage makes it an iconic breakfast meal. It’s hearty, somewhat healthy, and sets you up for a productive day. However, if you’re after something lighter, fresh fruit is another go-to. If you’d prefer to drink your breakfast, opt for a POG – a passion fruit, orange, and guava juice drink.

What is Hawaii’s national dish?

While Hawaii doesn’t have an official national dish, most can agree the unofficial national dish has to be the Hawaiian plate meal. This includes two scoops of rice, a macaroni salad, and an entrée, which is typically kalua pork, lomi lomi salmon, laulau, or another type of protein. At most restaurants, you can also opt for a mixed plate, which is the same idea, except you’re able to choose up to three smaller entrée options instead of sticking to one. It’s the best of all worlds!

If you find yourself near Lihue on Kauai, head to Mark’s Place for a delicious plate lunch at a bargain price.

What food is Hawaii famous for?

If there’s one food the Hawaiians have perfected and passed on to the rest of the world, it’s poke. Traditional poke is chunky raw fish, seasoned with Hawaiian sea salt and marinated with soy sauce and sesame oil, and mixed with onion. As it’s such a distinct part of Hawaii food culture, you’ll find quality poke nearly everywhere, from small takeout shops to high-end restaurants.

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