Thanks to the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese immigration over the centuries, Hawaii's food scene has always had a fusion element.
Some of the most common local dishes -- saimin, boiled peanuts, shoyu chicken -- have flavors that feel reminiscent of other cuisines but are also only-in-Hawaii. These days there is a huge local food movement, a creative local makers scene, and renowned, James Beard-nominated chefs cooking thoughtful local food, and that is all very much worth exploring when you travel to Hawaii. But, there will always be big love for the local comfort foods, because they're simple, delicious, and, well, comforting.
Some of these classic local foods are dishes you'll find at iconic plate lunch spots like Rainbow Drive In while others are cooked just as frequently by home cooks for any and everything from University of Hawaii football tailgates to luaus or just casual get togethers.
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. Our version of the dish is a Shrimp and Vegetable Saimin that's pretty simple and very delicious.
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. We often stop by local spots like Fort Ruger Market on Oahu to get boiled peanuts and some poke before going to friends' houses but we also like to make our own boiled peanuts when we're up for it!
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 Japanese-style 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. Our Editor In Chief likes to serve classic ahi poke on tostadas with avocado to bring a little bit of her fresh California roots to the dish.
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. The ones pictured here are from Royal Kitchen on Oahu and are a must-visit spot in our opinion because their manapua are always fresh and they have all sorts of flavors.
Musubi are like a long-lost cousin to the Japanese snack known as onigiri where sushi rice is wrapped in seaweed and often filled with all sorts of delicious flavors. But in Hawaii, they give it a decidedly local twist and fill sushi rice wtih SPAM that's 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!
Connect With Salt & Wind Travel
- Get To Know The Salt & Wind Travel Services
- Let Us Plan Your Trip! Fill Out This Form For A Custom Travel Itinerary
- Download Our Digital Travel Guides For Food Lovers
- Keep In Touch! Sign Up For Our Newsletter!
- Join the Salt & Wind Facebook Group for food and travel advice
More Hawaii On Salt & Wind Travel