Wondering what is classic or traditional Hawaiian food? Then you’ve come to the right place!
Many traditional Hawaiian foods are dishes initially brought over from Pacific Polynesian islands. As a result, Hawaiian cuisine is much more than a plate of poke, acai bowls, and pineapple.
The unique location of the Hawaiian Islands is what makes the food scene extraordinarily diverse and different. Still, there remains an enthusiastic following of traditional favorites – the authentic tastes of Hawaii.
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Hawaii’s Food Scene History
The local food you see today at the Hawaii islands is a delicious mix of many traditions. We’re talking about Native Hawaiian, Asian, which includes Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino, over to American, European – primarily Portuguese – and Latin or Puerto Rican ingredients and preparations.
The uniqueness of Hawaii’s food scene doesn’t stop at the food. It includes how locals talk about it. Going back again to Hawaii’s plantation era, these different ethnic groups, each with their language, had to find a way to communicate with each other.
The language very much exists today, so you’ll hear it in casual conversation and woven into menus.
Hawaiian Food You Must Try When Traveling to the Islands
Whether you’re preparing a trip to the islands or throwing a Hawaii-themed party in your backyard, you won’t want to miss out on these thirteen Hawaiian dishes I put together for you!
Popular for locals and visitors alike, poke is a rich dish full of flavorful and simple, fresh ingredients.
Most versions use ahi tuna, chopped into small cubes and combined with onions, sesame seeds, seaweed, and soy sauce. Sometimes, they substitute other freshwater fish or even octopus instead.
The staple and popular filler starch recipe in Hawaiian cuisine is something known by locals as poi.
Poi is a thick paste prepared from taro root, similar to a yam or potato but with a starchy-er flavor that is steamed or baked and pounded. Water is also added to the mix so that a sticky pudding-like texture is created.
Poi has an unusual flavor. It’s starchy and lightly sour from the light fermentation in the preparation process. You can’t get enough poi while in Hawaii, but keep in mind that the flavor and texture need some getting used to.
It doesn’t matter if you find it at a restaurant, lunch wagon, or somebody’s house. When in Hawaii, you have to do what the locals do – get a plate of Hawaiian food.
Order a scoop of rice with a kalua pig on top, pork or chicken laulau wrapped in ti leaves, dried beef, and salmon on the side, with poi and kulolo or haupia, which is a coconut cream pudding for dessert. Mix and match it however you like.
These noodles look a lot like a different popular Asian dish, ramen! The characteristic that makes saimin different is that it’s made with Chinese egg noodles and a clear Japanese broth.
As more migrations followed to Hawaii, more ingredients entered the mix; green onions, kamaboko, kimchi, Portuguese sausage, and Spam, to create the recognizable bowls of saimin you see today.
It’s become so iconic that you can order it at sporting events at Aloha Stadium and even in McDonald’s locations across Hawaii.
Taro Ko Farm Chips
If the best foods can be partly defined by how hard they are to get, Taro Ko Farm’s taro, sweet potato, and potato chips are legit. You can only find these handmade chips on Kauai in the small historic town of Hanapēpē.
But, If you drive too fast, you might miss it. So, the hours are simple: if the door’s open, you’ll find the owner, Dale Nagamine, selling bags out of brown boxes for $5 each.
Luau stew quickly falls into the category of Hawaiian comfort food. Made with taro leaves, they’re cooked until it reaches that perfect melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, then seasoned with a dash of Hawaiian sea salt, and that‘s it.
The most popular luau stews are made with beef brisket, but you can find various versions throughout Hawaii. Depending on the recipe of the place you’re eating, you could also expect ginger, onion, coconut milk, pepper, or seaweed to spice up this already delicious dish even more.
This recipe is most easily compared to char siu bao buns, but any Hawaiian local will immediately dismiss you if you call them that. These doughy buns are filled with pork and steamed or baked.
Depending on who you ask, the name is either a shortening of mea ono puaa or mauna puaa. Whether they’re better baked or steamed is still up for debate, decades after they have been brought by the Chinese who immigrated here in the mid-to-late-19th century.
Manapua is available at most of Hawaii’s Chinese restaurants.
Spam musubi is Hawaii’s most popular handheld snack. It’s a small block of rice that comes topped with a slice of Spam and wrapped in seaweed. This treat is delicious and savored both hot and at cold temperatures.
It can be found everywhere, from convenience stores to restaurants.
You can think of mochiko chicken as Hawaii’s version of popcorn chicken. Bite-size pieces of chicken are marinated in a mochiko flour mix and then deep-fried. It’s crisp, juicy, and garlicky enough. This recipe is served hot, usually with a big rice bowl.
Lomi salmon is a delicious recipe, not native to Hawaii but brought over from other Pacific islands. The plate now has become part of most traditional Hawaiian meals and makes a great addition to poi.
Raw salmon is cured with salt and tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers. The result is what I’d like to call a salmon-infused Hawaiian-style salsa topping, and the ingredients work incredibly well together.
The salty flavor of the salmon matched with the acidic tomatoes and onions is a flavor to cherish.
Mochi, a sweet Japanese rice cake, is in no short supply in Hawaii and comes in many different forms here: mochi ice cream, mochi balls with shave ice, butter mochi – which is another local-style classic you should try. Still, the strawberry mochi is considered a local favorite.
It’s becoming trendy to get a bowl of shave ice over which they generously pour housemade, all-natural, locally sourced syrups. In many ways, this evolved shave ice recaptures the cool cones’ history.
Japanese laborers contracted to work in Hawaii sugar and pineapple fields brought shave ice with them. Plantation workers would use their machetes to finely shave the ice from large ice blocks, then pour fruit juice over the fluffy ice.
This sweet treat of shaved ice and flavored syrup is a Hawaiian classic in the ever-present hot weather. This is the closest you’ll get to snow on the islands.
Locals can’t get enough of this light, flaky pastry stuffed with gooey chocolate pudding and topped with buttery chantilly frosting, and neither will you once you try it. It’s the frosting that sets the coco puff apart from other baked goods.
Best Restaurants To Visit
When you hear the word Hawaii, you think of surfing, sunshine, sunsets, and swaying palm trees. But then, twelve creative chefs became known for their ‘Hawaii Regional Cuisine’.
With fantastic fresh fish and meats, farm-to-table produce, and inspired chefs coming up through the ranks, Hawaii is fast becoming the place for food lovers.
1857 S. King St. Fl 3RD // 808-949-2526
Alan Wong’s success on Oahu is real evidence of his innovative Hawaiian Regional cuisine dishes on which he has built his reputation. Since 1995, Wong’s Honolulu restaurant has provided top-tier menu items to those lucky enough to visit his restaurant.
- Special Diets: Gluten-Free Options
- Cuisines: Fusion, Hawaiian
799 Poho Pl. // 808-579-8488
Mama’s Fish House, located in Maui, is consistently on the must-visit restaurant list for visitors and residents of the Valley Isle. So many of Mama’s fans come back year after year to eat there, and the place has been awarded for being “the Maui-est” restaurant on Maui.
- Special Diets: Vegetarian-Friendly, Vegan Options, and Gluten Free-Options
- Cuisines: American, Hawaiian
127 Lahainaluna Rd. Lahaina Inn // 808-667-5117
For more than 25 years, Lahaina Grill has been titled “The Best Restaurant on Maui” by Honolulu Magazine. Located in the center of Lahaina Town, it’s a perfect Maui bistro. It’s an ideal spot for a birthday, anniversary, or date night in Lahaina.
- Special Diets: Vegetarian and Gluten-Free Options.
- Cuisines: Steakhouse, American, Seafood.
226 Lewers St. // 808-923-7697
Roy’s in Waikiki has been one of the best restaurants, owned by Chef and Owner Roy Yamaguchi since 1988. It’s located across from the beach near Fort DeRussey.
Chef Roy Yamaguchi has 31 locations worldwide: four on Oahu, an eatery on Kauai, Roy’s Waikoloa on the Big Island, and Roy’s Ka’anapali on Maui. In addition, Chef Yamaguchi shares his recipes via three cookbooks and is recognized for his humanitarian work on children with disabilities.
- Special Diets: Vegetarian-Friendly, Vegan Options, and Gluten-Free Options
- Cuisines: Japanese, American, Seafood, Sushi, Polynesian, Hawaiian
2895 Kalakaua Ave. Ste. A // 808-923-6552
This restaurant is located on Oahu’s “Gold Coast,” right at the base of Diamond Head. Here, you’ll find delicious food, fabulous sunset views, and stunning skylines of Waikiki and Honolulu. Michel’s is recognized for being one of the most romantic restaurants on Oahu.
- Special Diets: Vegetarian Friendly, Vegan Options, and Gluten-Free Options
- Cuisines: French, Seafood, International
Have you ever tasted any of these Hawaiian foods? Did you like what Hawaiian foods you sampled, or did any of them stand out for you?
If you are looking for Hawaiian food, look for any of these dishes suggested above served at a local café, take-out counter, roadside stand, farmers markets, or even a fine dining venue in Hawaii, and you will soak up the local flavors and taste of Hawaiian foods.
When in Hawaii, don’t forget to visit these restaurants that I mentioned and enjoy the delicious food they serve. And if you liked this article, I suggest you also read these:
Igor Jovanovski is an aspiring digital nomad, travel blogger and graphic designer who really loves food. He also has a creative side, and he works as a freelance graphic designer in his spare time. He has traveled across Europe quite a few times since he was young and recently started his mission to visit every country in the world! Igor’s favorite thing about traveling is the way he gets to know new people, food, places and cultures.
This exciting experience helps him create his own stories and make memories that will last forever