Food also offers interesting insights into Hawaiian culture. Any city or large town in Hawaii has supermarkets, and most small towns have a local store. They tend to carry the usual stuff found on the mainland, but you'll also notice a lot of items that are quite Hawaiian and popular in local homes. Many restaurants cater to the tastes of residents, including the ever-popular “plate-lunch” that features two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and a meat entrée.
If you want to try a nice variety of traditional Hawaiian food, attending a luau (feast) is a great way to sample the cuisine. A luau is a traditional celebration, but many hotels hold them at least on a weekly basis to delight the tourists. Listings for some of these luaus are included in this guide.
Taro (kalo) was a staple in old Hawaii and is still very much enjoyed today. The leaves can be featured in various dishes, but more important to local cuisine is the taro root. This is cooked and then pounded into a thick, purplish, starchy paste called poi, which people eat with their fingers. Breadfruit ('ulu) is processed and consumed in a similar manner. Coconuts (niu), bananas (mai'a), and sugarcane (ko) figure prominently in several dishes. The sweet potato (u'ala) was a staple all over Polynesia.
For meat, the old Hawaiians ate pigs (pua 'a), chickens (moa), and dogs ('ilio). Dogs are off the menu these days, but chickens are still popular, and a roast pig is often the centerpiece of a luau. Pigs are traditionally cooked in an earth oven called an imu, which bakes and steams the meat. There is, of course, a wide variety of seafood available, including fresh fish. Crustaceans and shellfish such as crabs and limpets are popular, and so are octopus, squid, and seaweed.
It's Party Time!
Here are some foods you'll typically find at a luau or a local eatery. Some are ancient recipes, while others reflect modern influences. Try them all! They're all good!
Kalua pig: Pig cooked in an imuor oven and mixed in with cooked cabbage
Poki: Raw fish or octopus prepared in different ways
Laulau: Meat, chicken, and/or fish steamed in taro leaves
Lomilomi: Salad of tomatoes, onions, and raw salmon
Chicken long-rice: Chicken cooked with clear rice noodles
Haupia: Coconut pudding
Malasadas: Hot, round, doughnut balls
Loco-moco: Bowl of rice covered with eggs, meat, and gravy
Saimin: Ramen noodles and soup with various things mixed in
Hulihuli chicken: Barbequed chicken
Spam musubi: Grilled spam with teriyaki sauce fastened with dry seaweed to a clump of rice.
If you want to eat breakfast like a local, try some loco-moco with a side order of “bortagee” sausage or spam. For lunch, saimin is always a great choice. And don't forget to try some poi. A lot of non-Hawaiians claim they don't care for it, but you just might be surprised!
With the blending of cultures, it is no surprise that Hawaii has become a center for creative haute cuisine, where the fresh ingredients and flavors of the Pacific have been artfully combined. Fine dining abounds in Hawaii, and several of the state's master chefs have achieved international acclaim. For a sample of nouveau Hawaiian cuisine, take a look at some of the cookbooks written by Sam Chow, one of Hawaii's premier chefs.
Famous from Elsewhere
Ironically, some of the food items for which Hawaii is internationally famous were actually introduced to the islands from elsewhere in the world! These include the pineapple, coffee, and macadamia nuts. And then there is rice, an Asian staple that has become a very important part of the Hawaiian diet.
The sweet potato has its origins in South America. This vegetable provides indisputable evidence that there was some sort of contact between the New World and Polynesia in ancient times. Scholars have argued for years whether South Americans visited Polynesia or Polynesians visited South America, with the visitor returning home with the tasty tuber.
Nothing Dull about It!
The pineapple could almost stand as a symbol of Hawaii, but it is actually a South American plant. It was brought to European attention by the explorers of the New World and became a highly desired commodity, even a symbol of hospitality. The pineapple was introduced to the islands in the early nineteenth century, and as trade with North America rapidly increased, so did the demand for the fruit. As a result, large pineapple plantations were established, most notably on the islands of Oahu and Lanai. Successful experiments in canning the fruit tremendously increased exports, and companies such as Dole have been thriving for years.
Some of the best coffee in the world is grown in Hawaii. In fact, Hawaii is the only one of the United States where coffee is cultivated. Coffee from the Kona region on the Big Island is especially notable and plantations of all sizes can be found there. Some of these coffee growers have tours and tasting rooms for those so inclined.
Nuts to You!
Untold numbers of tourists return from their Hawaiian trips with packages of macadamia nuts. They are popular as snacks and are often incorporated into specialty chocolates and other delicacies. But macadamias are not native to Hawaii. These little delights actually came from an Australian tree species! They were first brought to the islands in the 1880s. Experimentation with grafting and careful growing eventually made commercialization of the plant and its nuts viable. In 1989, Hawaii produced 55 million pounds of nuts.