Hawaii’s Most Iconic Foods

By Katie Young Yamanaka
Photo courtesy of Bodie Collins.

Photo courtesy of Bodie Collins.

Hawaii has the best of all worlds when it comes to cuisine. From Asian to European and everything in between, if you crave it, you will find it here. What you won’t find anyplace but Hawaii, however, are the locally inspired items — steeped in history and tradition, blended together by the melting pot of cultures.

There is a lot to choose from, and some may appear more risky ventures than others if you are used to a steady diet of traditional American fare like burgers and fried chicken. But if you come to our sandy shores, there are iconic foods of Hawaii that you must try before you leave.

Spam musubi: That slimy hunk of luncheon meat is transformed into this local favorite — sliced, grilled (sometimes seasoned with shoyu and sugar), slapped together with a rectangular scoop of sticky rice, and wrapped in nori (seaweed). This take on traditional Japanese musubi is a potluck/picnic staple for young and old alike.

Spam musubi came about as a result of Japanese influence during Hawaii’s plantation days. Spam was used because it was an inexpensive source of protein as people moved away from traditional hunting and fishing methods. Today, the spam musubi is celebrated as a symbol of cultures coming together during those early plantation years, working together, sharing and receiving, and eventually creating the rich cultural diversity that is Hawaii’s trademark today. (Photo courtesy of Napua Heen/Hawaii.com.)

Poke (pronounced po-kay): Poke, the Hawaiian word meaning “to slice,” is fish tartare ramped up local-style. Raw cubed fish, usually yellowfin tuna (ahi) is mixed into a savory salad, combined with sea salt, soy sauce, inamona (roasted crushed kukui nut) sesame oil, limu or ogo seaweed, sweet Maui onion, and chili pepper. Poke it not limited to just ahi. Places that specialize in it, such as Tamura’s Fine Wine and Liquors and Tanioka’s Seafood and Catering on Oahu as well as islandwide Foodland locations have a plethora of options, including octopus, salmon, imitation crab and more.

Ahi poke cubes with sweet onion, green onion in a light sauce garnished with red caviar, seaweed and shaved green onion. (Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson.)

Loco Moco: You can eat this for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The traditional version is white sticky rice (Hawaii’s staple starch), topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg and drenched in salty brown gravy. Other variations include all kinds of other meats, such as shrimp, fish, bacon, Spam, teriyaki chicken and more. But there is always gravy. It’s a must.

loco moco

A classic Hawaiian loco moco. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Breit.)

Saimin: If there is a “fast food” of Hawaii, this might be it. Saimin is an inexpensive soup with noodles, similar to Japanese ramen. This comfort food is dressed up with kamaboko (fish cake), green onions, eggs and sometimes char siu (pork). Eat it with chopsticks and then pick up your bowl to slurp up the delicious broth.

Photo: A warm bowl of saimin representing the melting pot that is Hawaiian food and culture. (Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson )

A warm bowl of saimin representing the melting pot that is Hawaiian food and culture. (Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson.)

Luau fare: You know you can’t come to Hawaii without heading to a Hawaiian luau where traditional foods are cooked up in massive proportions. The typical Hawaiian-style luau these days features a wide variety of food including items like succulent roasted pig (kalua pig), lau lau (pork and butterfish in taro leaf), lomi lomi salmon (tomato, onion, salmon salad), squid luau (coconut milk, squid and taro leaves), and haupia (an awesome coconut milk-based dessert pudding). At every luau, you will also find poi (pounded taro root). Be forewarned: It is considered blasphemous to pour sugar on your poi before consuming it. The slightly sour taste of this pasty substance lends itself nicely to other luau delicacies. I suggest mixing some with your kalua pig or lomi salmon if you can’t take it straight.

Making poi. Laulau plate.

Left: The traditional way of making poi is hand pounding the root with a stone and board (Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Kirk Lee Aeder). Right: A typical Hawaiian food lunch plate with red lomi lomi salmon, green pork and fish lau lau, white rice, and fresh poke (Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson).

Shave Ice: Satisfy your sweet tooth with the islands’ number one iconic sweet treat: shave ice (or, if you’re on the Big Island, ice shave). The concept is the same: a block of ice is shaved into a cone or a bowl, and then flavored with tropical or traditional syrups that are absorbed by the ice. Today’s shave ice is bolder than ever with additional topping options from ice cream to li hing mui (salty dried plum) to condensed milk to azuki (sweet red) beans. Go nuts!

Cone or bowl? The rainbow shave ice cone is the classic hot day sweet treat. But try the upgraded bowl with mochi balls, a condensed milk waterfall, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream to top it all off. Left: Classic shave ice cone (Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson). Right: Bowl of shave ice (Star Advertiser).

Cone or bowl? The rainbow shave ice cone is the classic hot day sweet treat. But try the upgraded bowl with mochi balls, a condensed milk waterfall, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream to top it all off. Left: Classic shave ice cone (Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson). Right: Bowl of shave ice (Lawrence Tabudlo).

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