PHOTO: Poké Bop's famed Poké Donut. (photo courtesy of Poké Bop/Kevin Marple)
Hawaii has a fascinating culinary heritage that many visitors both new and old grow quickly accustomed to during their stay in the Islands of Aloha. There are many foods and cuisines which remain relatively exclusive to the islands, while others have made their way to the Mainland to appease the tastes of returned visitors, homesick kama‘aina (Hawai‘i locals), or anybody who has come to love and cherish the flavors of the 50th State.
However, for the uninitiated, the array of options can be confusing.
What is “Hawaiian food”? The answer is more complicated than it sounds.
There are, in fact, several different styles of cooking that are popular in Hawaii, although it’s important to remember that many in Hawaii reserve the “Hawaiian” label for traditions attributed to pre-contact Native Hawaiians—this means foods like poi (taro root steamed and mashed into a paste), laulau (steamed pulled pork wrapped in taro leaf) and other preparations.
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For those wanting a taste of Hawaii on the Mainland, I’ve created a list of dishes and types of cuisine to keep an eye open for.
Poke (pronounced poh-keh in Hawai‘i, not poh-kee, which is popular on the Mainland) has grown in popularity outside of Hawaii. Poke, which is cubed raw fish, typically tuna, seasoned with oil, sea salt, limu (seaweed) and kukui nuts, has been popular in Hawaii since before Western contact, and variations of the dish are popular throughout Polynesia.
In the islands of Tahiti it’s known as poisson cru, and is flavored with coconut milk.
In any major U.S. city, you can search “poke” in a search engine and find any number of restaurants dedicated to the dish. Outside of Hawaiian specialty stores on the Mainland carrying poi shipped in bags from Hawaii, this is as close to “Hawaiian” food as you can find—just keep in mind that the original recipe was very simple, and predated the introduction shoyu (soy sauce is known by its Japanese name in the islands) and spicy mayonnaise (another popular modern poke preparation).
For an utterly Instagrammable treat, the Dallas restaurant Poké Bop (hat tip for encouraging correct pronunciation with the accent) has created a poke donut, which photographs beautifully, but I personally prefer a traditional poke bowl with their green tea rice.
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Hawaii Regional Cuisine
Until the mid-1980s, fine dining in resorts throughout Hawaii was little different than it was on the Mainland—classic continental, with a focus on premium proteins that often required import into Hawaii by air.
Around that time, a group of chefs in Hawaii began experimenting with a fusion of classic continental and Asian techniques with locally sourced meat, fish, and vegetables to create Hawaii Regional Cuisine, or HRC, which now defines the culinary scene in Hawaii.
Many “Hawaiian-inspired” type restaurants on the Mainland draw on this tradition, but one of my favorites, by one of the seminal chefs of the movement, is Roy’s, which grew from a single suburban Honolulu restaurant in 1988 to several locations today throughout Hawaii and the Mainland.
Hawaiian Barbecue/Plate Lunch
Other Hawaii favorites include the plate lunch, which is emblematic of the cultural melting pot of the 50th State.
Typically, the plate is comprised of rice, macaroni salad, poke or fresh catch grilled or fried, laulau, poi, beef, chicken, or pork which grilled or barbecued in a Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, or Filipino style.
It is always served in portions to satisfy appetites honed over backbreaking plantation work. The plate lunch is almost a parable for Modern Hawaii herself—equal parts Hawaiian, East, and West, all living in (relative) harmony in a Styrofoam clamshell.
Other Hawaii favorites that don’t fit specific categories are often found at these types of establishments from spam musubi (spam and rice sushi) to saimin (noodles, fried or in soup, similar to ramen) somen noodle salad, and malasadas (Portuguese-style donuts popular in Hawai‘i, sometimes taro-flavored), and haupia (coconut flavored gelatin).
One of the easier places to find this type of food on the Mainland is the growing Hawaiian chain L&L Barbecue, but there are also numerous independent restaurants around the country (an almost shocking number of which are unrelated, yet named Aloha Kitchen).
For the upscale version of everything from Saimin Noodles to Spam Musubi, one of my personal favorites is Ma’ono Fried Chicken & Whiskey in West Seattle.
Like any list pertaining to Hawaii, this one can’t possibly be exhaustive. Let me know what I missed in the comments, or feel free to yell at me on Twitter for forgetting your favorite.