As soon as the plane lands, I’m always eager as ever to get outside into the thick, humid, tropical air. The weather is a happy shock to my system every time, reminding me how lucky I am to return to the magical Aloha State for the umpteenth time. Growing up, I was fortunate to visit Hawaii for annual summer family vacations. As a little girl, Hawaii meant swimming, sea turtles and hula lessons. And then, I stole the idea from my parents to attend summer school at University of Manoa to “study” (um, yeah, I didn’t get much of that done). Fast-forward a decade (or two), I still thoroughly enjoy soaking in nature’s finest; however, let’s be honest, I’m a little piggy and my favorite thing is to do is eat, eat, eat Hawaii food.
Hawaii is a cultural melting pot with the cuisine to prove it. Hawaiian culinary culture started with foods that Polynesians packed into their canoes (pigs, taro roots, etc) and harvested from the sea (fish, etc.). As pineapple and sugarcane plantations grew, so did the demand for labor. With the arrival of field workers from China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Portugal and Puerto Rico, the cuisine especially evolved. Today, you’ll find an eclectic mix of food with layers of culinary influences on just about every corner.
I’ve always wanted to do a Global Grub DIY Cooking Kit “Taste of Hawaii,” and so, my most recent trip (twist my arm!) was about digging deeper into the Hawaiian food scene and Hawaii food that would be best for a kit. Without further ado, here’s my take on the top 8 foods in Hawaii you gotta try in Aloha-land.
1. Traditional Hawaiian Meal
Be sure to have least one authentic Hawaiian meal to get a taste of Hawaiian roots. Staples include kalua pork, pipikaula (dried beef), polarizing poi (taro plant), lomi salmon (think salmon salsa), and Haipua (coconut cream pudding), to name a few. Head to a luau to get in the mood, or better yet, check out the famous local and tourist hot spot Helena’s Hawaiian Food (random location, but worth finding a parking spot).
2. Kalua Pork… on everything
I know I already technically covered Kalua Pork, but traditional Hawaiian meal aside, you need to incorporate this into all of your meals. This smoky, juicy and tender shredded pork deserves a spot in your sliders, omelets, burritos, salad, whatever you fancy. Traditionally, it’s made in an underground oven where the whole pig is steamed for several hours, but I’m determined to find a way to replicate this at home (kalua pig recipe coming soon!).
3. Plate Lunch
This is one of the most famous dishes in Aloha State, dating back to the 1880’s when field workers would bring their lunch to work in bento boxes. It’s delicious, cheap, filling, and not the best meal for your best bikini bod. A plate lunch consists of white rice, macaroni salad and your favorite protein. In my case, I went all out with a Mix Plate from the famous Rainbow Drive-In that had a meat explosion of delicious BBQ beef, ono and chicken (that latter two fried, of course).
This chunky, raw fish salad is popping up all around the US mainland, and on the island, you can find this popular Hawaii food practically everywhere (from hole-in-the-walls to fancy restaurants). The most traditional Hawaiian poke consists of cubed ahi seasoned with Hawaiian sea salt, inamona (crushed kukui nuts) and limu kohu (seaweed variety). With so many varieties, the hardest part is choosing which kind.
5. Tropical Fruit
Save room for some refreshing tropical fruit found all over the island. You’ll get fruit you know, like papayas, pineapples, mangoes and bananas. But you should also walk on the wild side and try rambutans and passion fruit. You can take your fruit to the next Aloha level by sprinkling it with some li hing mui power, like the locals do. The saltiness of this dried plum powder magically brings out the sweetness of just about any fruit.
Musubi is a popular handheld snack that’s worth trying, readily available at convenience stores (from gas stations to ABC stores… you know those stores on EVERY corner of Waikiki). SPAM is a “don’t knock it ‘til you try it” meat that gained it’s initial popularity among troops during war, but has remained an ubiquitous Hawaii food. A slice of grilled spam is placed over a block of white rice and wrapped up like a present by a strip of nori (plus variations like +egg). It’s tasty and pretty fun to make too!
7. Shave Ice
Onto dessert.. While it may resemble a snow cone, the big difference is the ice, which is delicately shaved to melt in your mouth. Field workers used to use machetes to finely shave the ice! You can pick your favorite syrup flavors to get those iconic bring strips of color. You can also opt for a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk called a “snow cap.” I asked my little guy about his favorite thing in Hawaii and his answer was "shavvvve ice" (yes, he likes these even more than hula girls, which says A LOT).
These Portugese-style donuts are light and fluffy balls dusted in a sweet coating. No matter which coating (sugar, cinnamon sugar or li hing) and optional filling (custard, chocolate or haupia) you chose, one thing’s for sure: this is a solid mass, no holes in these donuts! Leonard’s is the original and most famous maker of Malasadas in Hawaii, who started making these on the island back in the 1950’s.
Cheers! Don’t forget to have some POG juice (passion orange guava) or a mai tai to wash it all down. I think my little one is at the Hawaii = beach/pool phase, but I can only hope one day, he’ll love Hawaii food as much as me (oink-oink!). And I hope you enjoy too.! Mahalo and aloha :)
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