Waves crashing on golden beaches, shaggy palms swaying gently, bright sunshine, azure skies and emerald jungle mountains crowned with waterfalls. Most people visit Hawaii to enjoy the beach, to ride the rolling hills through volcano country, to swim and to kayak in the cerulean ocean and to sponge up the aloha spirit, but all that becomes so much better when Hawaiian food is part of the adventure!
Technicolor shave ice. Heaping piles of kimchi fried rice. Sushi omakase from some of the world’s most renowned chefs. Sweet, fresh papayas sliced open at roadside stands. Just-caught poke served with soy sauce and spicy, sweet and crunchy accoutrements. The world is filled with beautiful places and amazing food, but tropically inspired, farm-fresh, flavor-forward food like this can only be found in Hawaii.
The Dining Experience in Hawaii
The Hawaiian dining experience goes far beyond luaus, kalua pig and poi. In fact, something of a food revolution has long been underway here, compelling the mainland to play catch-up to the responsible farming practices, chefs’ loyalty to local purveyors and the ever-evolving fusion of Asian cuisines that Hawaii has been practicing for decades. The revolution isn’t limited to fine dining either. From vibrant, cosmopolitan Honolulu to the sleepiest surf town on Kauai, delicious flavors are available and can be found in every corner, shave ice shack and sushi bar across the islands. This complex, fascinating and sophisticated food culture isn’t based on trends but, rather, on layers of immigrant influences and millennia of Hawaiian food traditions.
Here, ancient cultures and customs collide. International influences brought to Hawaii over hundreds of years give depth and complexity to any delicious Hawaiian meal. It’s important to note, however, that many foods labeled as “Hawaiian” didn’t actually originate here. Skilled Polynesian navigators landed on the Hawaiian Islands nearly one thousand years ago, and they stocked their canoes with pigs, chickens and dogs, along with the cuttings, tubers and plants necessary to grow taro, sweet potato, breadfruit, bananas, coconuts and sugarcane. Those ingredients became integrated into an agricultural land management system based on the concept of ahupua‘a, wherein land was divided into pie-shaped slices of earth and ocean. These subdivisions yielded everything the ali‘i (chief) and his people needed, from fish to freshwater. At the heart of this cuisine was the staple poi—taro mashed with a carved lava rock and then thinned with water—along with sweet potato, breadfruit, all kinds of seaweed, fruit and some fish (eaten raw, dried or steamed).
These “native” dishes are still available in the best restaurants across the islands and are worth seeking out. Whether you’re visiting a roadside shave ice shack or a world-renowned sushi den, though, the staff at each establishment is sure to proudly share the welcoming spirit of aloha and will be eager to serve these unique, delicious, healthful dishes, which will arrive as a tapestry of colors, flavors and traditions.
Typical Hawaiian Dishes
No matter where you are in the state, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Hawaiian delicacies:
● Shave Ice
This Hawaiian treat is so much more than a snow cone! Shave ice stands serve up mountains of this flavorful ice, which is perfect for cooling off on a hot day.
● Loco Moco
Different culinary camps in Hawaii have different flags to fly, and one such camp champions the loco moco as a staple in any diet. A gut-busting ball of rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg and gravy, the meal serves as one of Hawaii’s most iconic fusion dishes.
Poke isn’t just a Hawaiian dish; it’s a way of life. The chunky raw-fish salad makes appearances everywhere, from birthday paina (parties) to casual picnics spent at the beach. Nowhere else in the world does the dish quite like its place of origin, which offers up incredibly fresh seafood selections and a dizzying array of poke varieties.
Malasadas, or Portuguese doughnuts (brought to the islands by early Portuguese immigrants and adopted with relish by the Hawaiian locals), are balls of sweet dough deep fried into light, airy confections and then rolled in sugar. Custard or chocolate can serve as a filling, but no matter how these decadent treats are offered, they always epitomize the “cheat day dessert.”
● Plate Lunch
Upon landing in Honolulu on his first vacation after taking office, President Barack Obama proclaimed, "I'm going to get a plate lunch!” The plate lunch is a carb fest comprised of a protein, two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad. It’s as local as local Hawaiian food can get, and it’s the perfect way to reload after a long ride or hike here.
Don’t let the rumors about bland, pudding-like poi (taro root that’s been pounded and mixed with water) sway you. Poi can actually be quite delicious when eaten in the proper context. In Hawaii, locals eat fresh purple poi as their starch and a complement to the rest of their meals.
● Spam Musubi
Spam is truly an example of the way different cultures have left their marks on Hawaii’s cultural cuisine. Hawaiian eaters love Spam so much that they consume more per capita than anywhere else in the United States. In fact, the state goes through about five million pounds per year! The most popular way to eat it? That’d be Spam musubi, where a slice of the canned meat is placed on a rectangular block of rice and wrapped in nori (Japanese seaweed). This popular dish is similar to Japanese onigiri (rice balls).
Pineapple has been synonymous with Hawaii since its introduction to the islands in the early 1800s. Although the once-mighty Hawaiian pineapple plantations are largely gone, their legacy lives on. The pineapples that grow here are some of the sweetest and most delicious in the world, and they shouldn’t be missed!
● Fresh Mangoes
Hawaiian mangoes have fuller, richer, deeper flavors than mangoes grown in other parts of the world, and some 29 mango varieties are native to the Hawaiian Islands. Farmers across the state have cultivated their own varieties, and each will taste a bit different. Try them all!
Backroads Pro Tip
The “catch of the day” is a great way to make sense of the massive and exciting menus in Hawaii. Ask about the fresh fish or seafood catch of the day, and go with whatever preparation the chef has chosen. You won’t likely be disappointed!
Regional Foods and Specialties
While traditional flavors, fresh produce and inspired menus can be found across the islands, keep an eye out for these few regional specialties:
● Kona Coffee
Clean, rich, complex flavors are the hallmark of Kona coffee, one of Hawaii’s most prized exports. Sipping a cup of local joe while sitting on the ocean-adjacent lanai is practically a rite of passage for Kona visitors.
● Macadamia Nuts
Another delicacy revered around the world, macadamia nuts are found primarily on the Big Island, growing specifically in the southern regions. Grab a buttery handful—and a bag to take home as a souvenir.
In the early 1900s, Hawaii was home to the world’s largest pineapple plantation (the island of Lanai) and this delicious fruit has long been closely tied to the mystique of the islands. While nearly all commercial pineapple plantations are no longer in operation, fresh “Maui Gold” pineapple is readily available throughout the islands is one of the most delicious and sweet treats you’ll ever experience!
Backroads Pro Tip
No matter the season, keep an eye out for farm-fresh fruit stands across the islands. Let the bounty dictate your final selection, and don’t feel self-conscious about enjoying your mangoes, lilikoi, papayas, coconuts or baby bananas right there on the sidewalk with juice dripping down your arm.
Hawaiian Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
● Grinds, or Grindz: Slang for “grub” or “delicious food”
● Ono (oh-no): Local word for "delicious." (For extra emphasis, use “onolicious” or add “so,” as in "so ono!” Heads up, “ono” is also the name of a firm white fish popular throughout the islands.)
● Choke: Slang for “a large amount.” (It wouldn’t be out of the question to hear, “There was choke poke at the potluck!”)
● Pau: Done, with work or a meal. The term appears in pau hana, or happy hour.
● Pupus: Appetizers or snacks that are often served at pau hana.
Words to Know When Dining Out
English is spoken widely in Hawaii, but a healthy dose of Hawaiian words give the language a special flair. Sprinkle your vernacular with these helpful terms:
● Aloha: Hello, good-bye and love (You’ll generally hear it used as a greeting.)
● Mahalo: Thank you. (While you can always say “thank you,” it’s nicer to say mahalo [mah-hah-lo] instead.)
● Ohana: Family (You might hear of restaurant meals served ohana-style, or family-style.)
● Keiki: Child, or Children (You might see keiki menus or events and activities for keiki.)
● E komo mai: Welcome
● Hale: House, or Home (Haleakala means “house of the sun.”)
● Wahine: Lady, or Female (Restrooms might be labeled wahine instead of “women.”)
● Kane: Man, or Male (Restrooms might be labeled kane instead of “men.”)
Tipping conventions in Hawaii are the same as on the mainland. The tips service staff receive here comprise a significant portion of their livelihood. At a café or coffee shop, you’ll likely see a tip jar at the counter. It’s customary to give a tip to any bellhop, valet or waitstaff member or anyone else who provides exceptional service. Recently, many popular restaurants have started including an additional charge on the bill that helps to pay for employee health care. This is separate from the gratuity. The amount is optional, though; you can elect to decline it.
Hawaiians don’t typically have set hours for meals, and unlike in other tropical regions, where restaurants close midday for siestas, you’re welcome to enjoy a meal or snack almost whenever you like while visiting Hawaii.
Local fisherman work hard to catch fresh Ono, Mahi Mahi and many other types of local catch available in Hawaiian waters. Before declaring you “don’t like fish” (and possibly giving offense to passionate and hard-working locals), be adventurous and try the “fresh catch.” Like many who have come before you, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised to find that the mild white fish caught locally lacks the “fishy” taste of other seafood you may have tasted elsewhere (especially when served fresh!).
Be courteous to other diners and recognize that, while many come to the islands for Mai Tais and a good time with friends, there are also many travelers (and locals) who are here for a romantic or quiet escape, seeking to experience the serenity and quiet beauty of Hawaii. Try to keep your conversations quiet and respectful, especially in finer establishments.