Hawaii is much more than just beautiful beaches and tropical weather! The cultural diversity in our islands provides residents and visitors with a variety of different cuisines to satisfy their culinary cravings. But if you’re visiting Hawaii, you definitely want to set aside a meal or two to sample some traditional Hawaiian fare. Here are a few Hawaiian food favorites among locals and visitors alike.
What is often considered the Hawaiian version of a tuna tartare or carpaccio, poke has become an extremely popular dish in recent years. Typically, poke consists of fresh, raw fish (commonly a yellowfin tuna) cut into small bite-sized cubes and mixed with a variety of other fresh ingredients and seasonings. The most common form of poke incorporates elements like sea salt, soy sauce, sesame oil, chili peppers, onions, and a type of seaweed called limu. While there are many different recipes for poke, the main focus of all of them is the fish. As with tartare or carpaccio, fresh fish is the key to a great poke. So widespread is the popularity of poke that it can be found in restaurants and supermarkets all around the islands.
If you’re in the islands and you see a round mass of dark, soft (almost mushy) leaves wrapped around a chunk of pork, then you’re in the presence of lau lau. Lau lau traditionally consists of pork wrapped in taro leaves. The pork and taro are then wrapped once more in ti leaf and cooked until the taro has become soft and the pork fully cooked. Nowadays you’ll find other proteins like butterfish or chicken within lau lau, which add additional flavors to this Hawaiian favorite. Lau lau is usually served “plate lunch” style with rice and macaroni salad.
Born from the local cattle ranches, pipikaula is what many consider Hawaiian beef jerky. Traditionally sun dried or broiled after being slightly cured, modern-day interpretations of pipikaula often incorporate Asian influences. The most common preparation of pipikaula begins by marinating strips of beef in soy sauce. After marinating, the strips are either dried in the sun or hung to dry in the kitchen over the stove. Once dried, pipikaula has a strong salted flavor which enhances the flavor of the beef.
Kalua is a Hawaiian cooking method that involves the use of an underground oven or imu. To construct an imu, hot lava rocks are placed in a hole which has been lined with banana leaves. Once the imu is ready, a whole salted pig is placed inside, then covered with more banana leaves. The entire imu is then covered by soil and left to steam all day. A very popular feature dish at luaus, the fully cooked pig is usually unveiled to diners as it is carried out of the imu. If cooked properly the pork literally falls apart and is easy to shred and serve to hungry guests. Nowadays, the term “kalua pig” is used to describe any pork shoulder that has been rubbed with salt and then slow smoked. Many people now prepare portions of kalua pig at home in the oven or a slow cooker with the use of liquid smoke.
A traditional coconut milk dessert in Hawaii, haupia is another food commonly found at luaus. Haupia is usually presented in a gelatin form and is made by combining coconut milk, sugar, salt and a thickening agent like cornstarch or pia (arrowroot starch). In recent years it has become increasingly popular to serve haupia as part of a cake or pie. The sweet coconut flavor of haupia is delicious on its own, but also goes very well with other dessert treats like chocolate.
This is just a small sampling of the great food that the Hawaiian culture has to offer. You can find these items along with many others all across the islands. If you’re on the island of Oahu, there are a few spots with great reputations for preparing these Hawaiian food favorites. Among the most popular establishments are Ono Hawaiian Foods, Helena’s Hawaiian Food and Highway Inn.
No matter where you find your Hawaiian food fix, you can be sure that you’re in store for a unique and delicious dining experience!
Born and raised in Hawaii, Dale Yasunaga makes his home in paradise, right in the heart of the Pacific. Being exposed to a wide variety of authentic and fusion cuisines from around Asia and the Pacific, Dale has grown to be quite the foodie over the years. Always up for finding new, exciting, and delicious cuisine, Dale enjoys traveling beyond his island home and visiting new places.