While visiting Hawaii, I kind of felt the eating style was a bit of a split personality. There was plenty of fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables to eat but also a lot of processed food like Spam, tater tots, macaroni salad and always, white rice. Even my healthy Spicy Poke came with two scoops of white rice and a serving of (actually delicious) creamy macaroni salad. The average Hawaiian in the past was over 7 feet tall, so I can understand why calorie-loading was important for survival.
Hawaiian Food itself is a bit of a mixed plate, with five distinct styles reflecting the history of its settlement. There are influences from Polynesian, European and American, New England (missionaries), Whalers and Immigrants (including China, Japan, Korea, The Philippines, Puerto Rico and Portugal). All of these distinct styles were fused together to form what is now known as “Hawaiian Regional Cuisine.”
The one food I remember when I visited Hawaii as a child were these delicious, fluffy pancakes, served with Coconut Syrup. Coconut syrup is still popular in Hawaii and I covered my waffles with it, and topped it with toasted coconut and chopped macadamia nuts. Heavenly! I served my grandson the syrup with his pancakes for breakfast and he loved it.
The other thing I remembered about our visit was touring the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory and seeing how they harvested and processed the nuts. On our trip, we stopped at a Tropical Farm where they had macadamia nuts of every flavor, from savory- onion and garlic- to sweet- coffee and cinnamon- to sample, and of course buy.
I will never forget my Dad stopping on the side of the road and plucking a pineapple out of a field. All us kids thought we were going to get arrested! But, back at the hotel, when we sliced it up and ate it, it was the best pineapple I’d ever eaten. I had pineapple every day of our trip to the Hawaii and it was always delicious. Maui, with their sweet Maui Gold pineapples, is especially known for its pineapples. The pineapple business used to a lucrative one for Hawaii, but now most of the pineapples grown are used locally.
Many of the Tropical Trees growing in Hawaii are the same as we have in Miami, so there are an abundance of Papayas, Mangoes, Bananas and Lychees available. They made repeat appearances at our breakfast buffets, which was much appreciated.
Lilikoi deserves a special mention, since I encountered it all over the Hawaiian Isles. I had this delicious, yellow colored jelly at breakfast and asked what it was. Lilikoi, or Passionfruit and it’s used in many dishes in Hawaii from cocktails, (Lilikoi Martini) to desserts, like Creme Brulee. I even brought some (USDA approved) seeds home with me to plant so I can have my own Passionfruit Vine here in Miami.
Li Hing Powder
When I had a Lilikoi cocktail at Jackie Rey’s Ohaha Grill on the Big Island, the glass was rimmed with a red seasoning I couldn’t identify so I asked the bartender. what it was. She said “It’s Li Hing”, salted plums, you can find it in any local grocery store.” Indeed, she was right. It has a very distinct (possibly aquired) taste of sweet, salty and liquoricey. In Hawaii, they sprinkle it on everything, including poke, pineapple and ice cream.
Hawaii is one of the few states in the U.S. where coffee production is a significant economic industry and it is the second largest crop grown there. Kona coffee, in particular, is a prized variety, since the elevation and the volcanic soil make for perfect growing conditions. We visited a coffee farm in Kona and sampled the coffee, which is like black gold. We also bought many bags (at $27 a pop) to bring home as gifts. Interestingly enough, I liked the coffee grown in Kauai better than the Kona coffee.
Taro, a tuber, is a staple in the Hawaiian culture and its root is mashed to make poi, a dish traditionally eaten with the fingers. I remember reading about it as a child and being disappointed when I finally tasted it on our trip. As one of our tour guides on this trip said: “It tastes like wallpaper paste.” Still, the taro plant is considered to be sacred in the Hawaiian culture and poi is a must at any Luau.
Another tuber, this one is sweeter in color, with a beautiful purple color which makes it stunning in ice cream, pancakes or bread. It can also be baked, like a sweet potato. It’s trending lately, as I’ve found Ube spread and Ube Mochi at Trader Joes.
There’s an abundance of fresh seafood in Hawaii. What I encountered most was Ahi Tuna, (popular in poke), Ono (Wahoo) and Mahi Mahi. When I visited Hawaii with my parents and they ordered dolphin for dinner, the waiter took pains to explain we weren’t eating Flipper. My Dad told him we were from Miami and knew what dolphin was. The need to clarify the difference is probably why dolphin is now popularly known as Mahi Mahi.
There are a lot of Cattle Ranches throughout the Hawaiian Islands, so beef is plentiful and fresh. It’s used in dishes like Loco Moco– a breakfast dish which is a hamburger patty over white rice, with a fried egg and gravy. We also had Hawaiian Burgers (with grilled pineapple) and Teriyaki Steak– one of my favorites.
Spam became popular after World War II, when it was served to G.I.’s. It then became a staple in Hawaiian food, either fried and served with white rice or on a sushi roll known as musubi. I had it in a Mixed Plate and in Fried Rice; it was actually quite tasty. Spam, a processed meat product, is relatively inexpensive and non-perishable, making it an easy and affordable food for Hawaiians.
Fish tacos are the fuel of surfers, so they are obviously a popular Hawaiian food, but I saw tacos of all types- pork, shrimp, chicken, mushroom and tofu- on the menus in Hawaii.
This creamy and delicious side is seen all over Hawaii. When I ordered Spicy Poke, it came with two scoops of rice and macaroni salad. Can you say carb overload? The delivery person said I hadn’t indicated a side, so he just brought it with the side people normally order- macaroni salad. It’s a staple of the Plate Lunch, which originated with Plantation workers in Hawaii. The bland creamy dish balances out the salty, sweet and saucy proteins served on a Plate Lunch.
Huli Huli Chicken
This is a whole chicken that’s been marinated in a terayaki-like sauce, put on a rotisserie and grilled over mesquite wood. Huli means turn in Hawaiian, so this dish means turn-turn, like the chicken does when in rotates over the fire. It is ono! In other words, delicious.
This pork has nothing to do with the coffee flavored drink, but everything to do with Hawaii. The traditional Kalua Pork was a whole pig, stuffed with hot coals, wrapped in banana leaves and buried in the ground in an Imu– an underground oven- to cook for many hours. Digging the pig out is part of the ritual at a Luau and the succulent, tender pork is served alongside many other sides. Since most people don’t have access to an Imu, a modification in cooking uses Pork Shoulder, rubbed with salt and cooked either in a Dutch Oven or Slow Cooker. Liquid Smoke seasoning adds the smokey flavor.
This was the dressing I encountered all over Hawaii and it’s delicious! They even served it, with Spring Mix, at the Breakfast Buffet at the Prince Waikiki hotel. Salad for breakfast? Why not? It’s nutty, umami taste lends itself to many different uses.
The one Tiki drink seen ALL over Hawaii, was the Mai Tai. Our favorite Mai Tai was at $20 version at the Mai Tai lounge in the historic Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. Although they claimed to have invented the Mai Tai, there is some disputing that fact, but no disputing it was our favorite Mai Tai of our trip. Zeke kept trying Mai Tais at other places throughout our trip, but none compared. That was my first and last Mai Tai. I figured I’d had the best and wanted to stop with that.
Yes, that Dole Whip you’ve had at Disney World next to the Enchanted Tiki Birds is a big dessert in Hawaii. We ate ours a Lappert’s, a famous Ice Cream shop that started in Kauai. It was exactly like the one you get at Disney World, but served with fresh chopped pineapple on top. Shaved Ice (like a snow cone) is also a big frozen treat in Hawaii, especially the Rainbow flavor, but alas, I didn’t try any. That much sugar would make me go to sleep and I didn’t want to waste any of my vacation sleeping in the middle of the day.
Of course, this article only touches on the some of the foods of Hawaii. There are so many more I didn’t get to try. I guess that just means I’ll have to go back. They say they don’t say goodbye in Hawaii but say instead, “Ahui hou kakou”- until we meet again.
Ito is an eating boy, he never get enough from fish and poi He eat everything, he don’t care what He even eat the shell from the coconut.Ito Eats, from Blue Hawaii
Up Next: Sesame-Miso Dressing