One of the best things about travel is getting to try the different foods that you might not have at home. Culturally, Hawaii is quite different from other states as it is not only a mix of many ethnicities and cultures, but there is no racial majority. The food in Hawaii reflects that history and makeup. By no means is this list complete, but here are the 10 things we recommend you eat when you visit Hawaii.
Manapuas are a local favorite. It was brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants and is basically just bread with a pork center. It is also called "char siu bao", which translates to pork bread. It is most commonly served as steamed bread but is also very tasty in baked form. The two places we typically get our manapua from are Chun Wah Kam which is located in Aiea, Kalihi, and near Ala Moana Shopping Center. Another place is Royal Kitchen on the edge of Chinatown. If you go to Royal Kitchen, you’ll be in for a treat as their manapua is deliciously soft. You can easily eat a few of these things before you realize you are super full.
Manapua from Royal Kitchen
Easter Manapua from Chun Wah Kam (photo by @nadia_blogs)
This raw fish dish is experiencing a bit of a renaissance lately. It is typically made of raw ahi (tuna) cubes with various seaweed, onion, oils, and seasonings. Poke has been a staple of Hawaii house parties, tailgate parties, and special celebrations (weddings, graduations, etc) for generations. While the ahi verion is most common, there are many other such as tako (octopus), crab, and fish other than tuna such as salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), and more.
In this short video clip below, Ronni at Nico's Upstairs makes fresh ahi poke tableside. It tasted as awesome as it looks!
Shave is basically a snow cone. If you’re on Hawaii Island (aka Big Island), you might her the term "ice shave" because they sometimes reverse the words for terms used on Oahu. But it is the same thing. In Hawaii, you can expect flavors such as strawberry, lilikoi (passion fruit), coconut, and other tropical flavors. Some places give you the option of having ice cream on the bottom of your shave ice. Other places still offer red bean or azuki bean which is a Japanese treat. If you’ve ever had mochi with that sweet black center, azuki bean is pretty much the same thing. In addition to ice cream or azuki beans, some places will even top it with condensed milk or li hing powder. Be adventurous and try one of these variants to get a real taste of the cultural melting pot that is Hawaii. The most popular places to get shave ice on Oahu is Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa and Waiola Shave Ice in town (on Wailoa St). We also like Balwin’s Sweet Shop in Aiea but there are tons of other places.
Sharing the love (of shave ice)
You can’t visit Hawaii without trying, or at least encountering, spam musubi. Afterall, Hawaii consumes more Spam per capita than any other state in America. In fact, Spam is actually a branded term of Hormel Foods. There are other luncheon meats like Spam, but Spam is so common that people refer to any luncheon meat as spam. You’ll find it at almost any 7-11 or gas station convenience store as well as most supermarkets. Most spam musubi consists of rice, Spam, and nori (seaweed) wrapped around it to hold it together. Sometime the Spam is on top. Sometimes it is in the middle. Sometimes it is seasoned or fried. While many people around the country think of Spam as some undesirable mystery meat product, it is openly accepted and embraced by most Hawaii residents. Spam musubis come in variations such as a Tobasco or teriyaki (soy sauce and sugar). Some places even use sushi-grade rice and seasoning for their spam musubi. If you know anyone who grew up in Hawaii where you live, ask them about spam musubi and we guarantee they’ll know what it is and most likely make it at home from time to time.
Spam musubis are great on-the-go snacks or meals.
If you like potato chips, we strongly encourage you to try taro chips. Taro is a root of a plant that ancient Hawaiians pounded into poi. You can think of it as sort of a sweet potato. Just like a regular potato chip, it is made from thin slices of taro and fried in oil. Our favorite place to get taro chips is at the Hawaiian Chip Company. You can try fresh taro chips straight out of the fryer, and you can even add additional flavored salts and seasonings to your order. You can also order pre-bagged chips to take back home with you.
You can't beat fresh taro chips (photo by AlohaFunWear.com and Hawaiian Chip Company)
We love loco mocos. Loco mocos usually consist of a hamburger patty on rice topped with a sunny side up egg and brown gravy. It’s a local comfort food. Legend has it that it was first created at Café 100 in Hilo on Hawaii Island (aka Big Island). Since then it has spread to the other islands and is a staple of most local family restaurants like Zippy’s, Like Like Drive-Inn (pronounced “LEE-kay LEE-kay drive inn), Liliha Bakery and more. It’s cheap, easy to make, and very satisfying. Many locals enhance the flavor of their loco moco by adding Tobasco. Others make fancy versions with fried rice, wagyu beef, truffle oil, kimchi, etc. It is a wonderful breakfast or 2am meal after a night of partying.
The basic loco moco consists of rice, hamburger patty, egg, and gravy.
Kalibi Moco from Wahoo's Hawaii (photo by @nadia_blogs)
Oooh. Malasadas! If you have a sweet tooth and appreciate a good pastry, you’ll definitely want to try a malasada. A malasada is round donut without a hole coated in sugar. The most famous place for malasadas on Oahu is Leonard’s Bakery but there are others like Kamehameha Bakery and Champions. A couple of other famous places are Tex Drive In and Punaluu Bake Shop on Hawaii Island. Some bakeries have variations such as cinnamon and custard or haupia (coconut pudding) stuffed malasadas. We love them either in the morning with coffee or at night after a fun date out on the town. Malasadas are especially popular on Fat Tuesday before Lent, even for those who don't observe Lent.
Malasadas from the Leonard's Bakery
Shrimp from a Shrimp Truck
In past decades, Giovanni’s shrimp truck out in Haleiwa on the North Shore was the go-to place for garlic shrimp plates. Those plates were awesome! So garlicy and so buttery! Now there are many shrimp trucks and shrimp eateries on the North Shore and other parts of Oahu closer to Waikiki. Competition between shrimp trucks was so intense that legend has it that the police had to get involved. The typical shrimp plate consists of fresh shrimp sautéed in butter and garlic and served with two scoops of rice. If you like shrimp, garlic, and butter (three of our favorite ingredients in the entire world), you owe it to yourself to try a shrimp plate from a shrimp truck. And as a bonus, we recommend getting shave ice as a dessert, especially if you’re out on the North Shore.
Garlic shrimp plate from @bigwaveshrimp in Haleiwa
You can’t visit Hawaii without trying Hawaiian food, whether it is at a luau or at a restaurant. The easiest way to sample Hawaiian food is simply to order a Hawaiian plate lunch that includes laulau, kalua pig, lomi salmon (salted salmon, tomatos, and onions), poke, poi, haupia (coconut pudding), and more. Each bite will deliver an explosion of flavor. There are many places that serve Hawaiian plates but a few island favorites are Helena’s Hawaiian Food, Young’s Fish Market, and Oahu Grill.
Hawaiian plates from Oahu Grill (photo by @rx2dream)
One of Hawaii’s most traditional local foods is saimin. While you might think this is just a fancier version of packaged ramen or cup-o-noodles, it is much more than that. Saimin was originally developed during Hawaii’s plantation era that was heavily influenced by Japanese and Chinese immigrant workers who needed simple and affordable comfort food. The two main components are Chinese style egg noodles and Japanese broth. Beyond that, common ingredients include wun tun, kamaboko, pork, green onions, cabbage, Spam (of course), and much more. Saimin is so common in Hawaii that even McDonald’s sells it. You can even get it at concession stands at most major sporting events. There are many restaurants that have saimin on the menu with Zippy’s being the most ubiquitous. We love the specialty places like Hamura Saimin Stand on Kaui, Shiro’s Saimin Haven in Aiea (Oahu), and Shige’s Saimin Stand in the old town of Wahiawa (Oahu).
Saimin from Shige's Saimin Stand in Wahiawa (photo by @nadia_blogs)
Zippy's saimin is an island favorite (photo by @nanigurl808)