As a person who has always possessed a voracious appetite for adventure and food, no place in the world has captivated me more than the Hawaiian Islands. The powerful mana (energy) of Hawaii's volcanic landscapes, indescribable shades of teal blue waters and the vibrant canopies of tropical rainforests speak directly to my wild heart. But it's the mouthwatering cuisine of these special islands that beckons my hungry soul, and is one of my favorite parts of leading Backroads trips in this magical place. In a land where it seems anything can grow--from kale to pineapple to macadamia nuts and coffee--complimented by a melting pot of cultural influences, the result is nothing short of extraordinary.
Hawaii is a foodie's paradise. There's no other way to say it. You'll find roadside fruit stands boasting smoothies, popsicles, and baked goods filled with local tropical fruits like strawberry, mango and pineapple. Local organic farms host a variety of tours where you can sample luscious sugarcane treats with a fresh squeeze of lime, prepare your own fresh coconut milk and indulge in a myriad of local chocolate delicacies. Fine dining establishments in Hawaii bestow modern twists of island favorites like macadamia nut-encrusted Mahi Mahi and salads decorated with edible flowers straight from the chef's garden. Food trucks dole out fresh fish tacos while locals crack open young coconuts from the back of their trucks to satisfy thirsty beachgoers.
Drawing deeply from ancient traditions, inspired by a constant flow of immigrant influences and sourced fresh from the bounty of the surrounding land and sea, Hawaiian chefs have mastered the art of fusion cuisine where ever-evolving recipes intermingle the traditional and inventive, familiar and novel, humble and bold...always fresh and often accented with a little bit of island flare. Generations of islanders have enjoyed "fresh-off-the-boat" fish and "farm-to-table" fruit and vegetables well before such terms were coined by modern food movements. Ask any local and watch their eyes light up as they recall memories of eating fish that their fathers caught that morning, climbing the mango tree in their auntie's backyard for an afternoon snack or trading bananas and passionfruit for avocados and papaya from their neighbors.
Aloha is the warm greeting of the islands. It is also a generous and compassionate way of living and treating one another with love and respect. The spirit of Aloha expresses a responsibility to care for the sky, sea and island earth to take only what is needed, to share with others without expectation and to celebrate life's energy in the present moment. For many Hawaiians, being connected to the land and sea, relishing simple pleasures like surfing, time spent enjoying ohana (family and friends) and feasting on great food are the cornerstones of the good life. On the weekends, families regularly gather for luaus or beach BBQ's to spend time together, play on the salty shores while the sun goes down and, of course, eat!
When in Hawaii, do as the locals do! Here are a few tasty dishes you and your loved ones won't want to miss.
At the center of the Hawaiian stories of creation is taro, a purple root vegetable adorned with highly nutritious, broad heart-shaped leaves. Once the staple of the Hawaiian diet, taro has been at the center of economic, political, agricultural and spiritual health of island society. And it remains an integral part of the culture. You'll find this sacred plant in its most traditional form called poi, made by mashing up the taro root with water to form a thick pudding-like paste. A much blander cousin to the sweet potato, poi is often considered an acquired taste. It's best enjoyed with a juicy forkful of kalua pork or adorned with a healthy dash of coarse Hawaiian sea salt. You can also find modern twists on this cultural staple like taro chips, taro fries, and French toast with made with taro sweet bread and coconut syrup.
Hawaiian Plate Lunch
If any one dish illustrates the colorful history of Hawaii's plantation era, it's the typical Hawaiian plate lunch. Start with two scoops of white rice and one scoop of potato-macaroni salad. Next, add a protein-rich food of choice from the diverse selection of native Hawaiian dishes like kalua pork (slow cooked pork shoulder), Spam masubi (slices of spam on top of rice wrapped nori), or laulau (kalua pork, chicken, fish or tofu wrapped in taro leaves and steamed to perfection in an underground imu (oven). There are also international dishes introduced during Hawaii's plantation era of the 1800's, like Japanese chicken or pork katsu (a thin, crispy breaded cutlet served with a sweet-and-sour sauce), Korean kalbi ribs and Portuguese sausage.
Incredibly Fresh Seafood
Looking for some lighter fare? Try poke (pronounced 'poh-keh,' meaning 'cut into chunks') a native dish of diced raw fish, that could be considered the Hawaiian version of ceviche. To prepare this dish, fisherman traditionally serve up their daily catch of small reef fish fresh, raw and seasoned with whatever local condiments they had on hand - sea salt, kukui (candlenut) or limu (seaweed). Today, poke is more typically made with fresh ahi (yellowfin tuna). You can also enjoy renditions of the classic dish that play with flavors like avocado, shoyu (soy sauce), sesame oil, teriyaki, spice, garlic, sweet Maui onion, green onions and macadamia nuts. Today's popular poke bowl includes a scoop of white rice topped with furikake (a Japanese seasoning) and a choice of edamame, seaweed or hoi'io (Hawaiian fern) salad, served with a side of local octopus, crab or shrimp.
Iconic Shave Ice
First introduced to the islands by Japanese immigrant laborers during the plantation era, shave ice has become a regular island treat that offers a cooling escape and a literal sweet taste of the islands. Naturally, Hawaii has made shave ice its own by dousing the powdery snow-like cones with locally inspired natural flavors of the aina (land). Fresh purees of lilikoi (passion fruit), strawberry, guava, papaya and pineapple are some of my favorites. Add a scoop of coconut ice cream in the center and jazz it up with toppings like shaved coconut, drizzled haupia (coconut cream) or sweetened red azuki beans.
You'll easily find these ubiquitous island favorites at local markets, food trucks, and both casual and high-end restaurants in Hawaii. My recommendation? Try everything! Indulge in as much of it, as often as you can. And always say yes to anything with coconut...your soul and your taste buds will thank you.