Hawaii – a dreamlike archipelago consisting of eight main islands, extensive beaches, and a pristine coastline – is a bucket list destination for many of us. It allures with tropical splendor combined with mouthwatering local delights to sample. Tourists come here simply to enjoy the sunshine, relax, and rejuvenate. Whatever your reason for vacation, one thing should be on every traveler’s itinerary – indulging in authentic Hawaiian dishes.
The food of the region originated with the Pacific Polynesian people sailing to the islands in the hopes of settling and starting communities. They brought seeds, French Polynesian dishes, exotic fruits, and revered recipes. The unknown land did not provide much to them except for an array of seafood. Slowly, the island population grew, as European, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese immigrants arrived and brought their unique tastes and cooking styles. These factors created new hybrid cuisines and were the beginning of traditional Hawaiian fare that we all love today. So let us explore the sunkissed archipelago up-close through its best native flavors highlighted in our guide.
Poke. Image by Miu Sua from Unsplash.com
The abundance of fresh seafood is the reason for the creation of poke. It is the Hawaiian take on Japanese sashimi. But instead of slicing the fish thin, it is plated as bite-sized hearty cubes. Ideally, this specialty is made with chopped raw ahi tuna, rubbed with salt, marinated in soy sauce, and served with limu seaweed, nuts, sesame seeds, and onions.
Today, poke bowls can be seen all over the world, and unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard about the craze for them on social media. But nothing in the mainland truly represents the traditional extremely fresh and delightful Hawaiian poke. The dish is a part of the lifestyle of the island people. There are many versions you can try here, ranging from limu to shoyu poke. Each variation is made using different fish and marinade. If you are new to this dish, we recommend starting with yellowfin tuna.
Tender beef is simmered in beef broth with potatoes, onions, celery, peas, and carrots. It is usually served as the main course.
Hundreds of dining venues on the island serve poke, but for a fully immersive authentic experience, head down to Da Ono Hawaiian Food on Kapahulu Avenue. Ono means delicious in the native language, and in this case, the name is well-earned. Da Ono is a cash-only eatery that does not look like much from the outside. It is truly a hole-in-the-wall place, with a mom-and-pop’s kitchen ambiance. The interiors are simple yet inviting, consisting of a few tables in a small space, an open counter, walls covered from floor to ceiling with photos of famous past diners, and accolades that the restaurant has received, including being voted Hawaii's Best Hawaiian Food by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
What this petite gem lacks in looks, it makes up for in taste. The menu displays two offering categories: combo plates and à la carte dishes. Sample family-style comfort specialties like pork lau lau, pipikaula (beef jerky), lomi lomi salmon with diced onion, chicken long rice (a type of soup), stewed beef with watercress, and of course, their signature tuna, octopus, or kulolo poke.
Kālua pork. Image by Yvonne Lee Harijanto from Unsplash.com
America has its succulent barbecue, Russia celebrates juicy shashlik, India – tandoori, and Hawaii boasts its imu – an underground pit oven set up by digging a deep hole and burning kiawe till it turns into charcoal. Kālua pork (not to be confused with the sweet Kahlúa liqueur) is a traditional island dish usually served as a festival meal. It is a smoked, shredded meat that looks similar to pulled pork from America. But instead of a tangy barbecue flavor, it has a pungent, deep wood aroma.
The hearty dish was originally cooked exclusively for tribe chiefs around the early 1800s since it was considered only worthy of greatness and not for commoners. About 20 years later, King Kamehameha started hosting lavish feats for everyone, and this is when kālua pork became a household name. The exotic roasting of the meat is slow and requires at least 4-6 hours to get the fall-of-the-bone tenderness and retain the remarkable smoky flavor. It is best enjoyed with a big pile of seasoned rice or braised cabbage.
Burritos are made with rice, beans and pieces of chicken, beef or pork wrapped into a warm tortilla. It can also include vegetables, shredded lettuce, salsa or hot sauce. The dish is popular in Mexico as well as in the U.S.
Since opening the doors of their first restaurant in 2001, Kono’s, with its distinctive surfing pig logo, has grown into a local superstar establishment. Today, you can find four outlets in Hawaii and two more in Las Vegas. But the best place is undoubtedly the flagship venue at the North Shore in Honolulu. Great for quick and inexpensive comfort food, this quaint deli-like shack possesses an eclectic surf-themed environment, made up of rustic wooden benches, indirect diffused lighting, a chalkboard menu, and a turquoise blue color tone.
The menu mostly consists of hearty breakfast offerings like sandwiches, wraps, and lunch meals. Kono’s is famous for its signature kālua pork which cooks for more than 15 hours before being served. Besides the smoky meat, you can enjoy scrumptious items like loaded burritos, turkey ranch sandwiches, pork ribs with guava sauce, and biscuits topped with gravy. Kono’s also features an extensive milkshakes and smoothies selection – a refreshing and healthy way to elevate your meal.
Loco Moco. Image from https://www.facebook.com/HyattRegencySaipan
You just read about the oldest dish in Hawaiian history, now let us tell you about the latest island staple. A mountainous fast food meal that was established right after World War II, loco moco consists of a heap of white steamed rice topped with a grilled hamburger patty, smothered in a gravy, and crowned with fried sunny side-up eggs. While eating, the egg breaks and blends with the patty and rice, combining all flavors. This epitome of comfort food can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, as well as during an occasional midnight bite. Many people claim to have invented loco moco, but it is universally agreed that around 1949, Cafe 100 in Hilo came up with the original recipe.
According to one legend, the meal was created for teenagers who were looking for something different from the typical American sandwiches and less time-consuming than Asian food to eat in the morning. The nickname of the first boy to sample this concoction was Loco, meaning crazy in Portuguese. Moco rhymes with loco and sounded good, so loco moco became the name of the dish.
An apple pie is prepared in the form of a rectangle of crumbly short pastry with a filling of tender cottage cheese and sweet apples and with airy meringue. It is often served with vanilla ice cream or syrup.
There is no better way to relish your first loco moco than at Cafe 100. It is not just the birthplace of the legendary treat, but an amazing family-run diner that has been serving the local community for over 70 years. A lot of food on the island of Hawaii is expensive and touristy, but if you come to Cafe 100, you can find something authentic and reasonably priced. In addition to the original loco moco, there are more than 30 other variations: visitors can choose different types of rice, meats, and vegetables.
Apart from everyone’s favorite loco moco, the diner has an extensive menu to satisfy your other cravings. Some of the flavorful dishes to try here are Korean fried chicken plates, beef stew, and a pu pu platter consisting of shrimp, chicken, and Portuguese sausages. In desserts, give their freshly made turnover a try. This tender apple pie topped with powdered sugar is a delight every sweet lover should indulge in.
Saimin. Image by J from Unsplash.com
Saimin – our next highlight – is a clear Chinese-style soup with noodles, sliced fish cake, fresh vegetables, and strips of barbecued pork. It looks a lot like another common Asian staple – ramen. But the thing that makes saimin different is that it is cooked with egg and wheat noodles and dashi (dried fish, sea kelp, and shiitake mushroom) broth. You might also think this is a Vietnamese pho, but the flavor profile is completely unlike anything else you have ever had in the world.
This dish is a perfect reflection of the diversity that exists in the communities living in Hawaii. Saimin combines Chinese, Japanese, and Polynesian influences in a comforting bowl. There are tons of places to try it on the islands, and some offer a variety of toppings like wontons, Spam, Portuguese sausage, and finely sliced fried eggs. But we recommend you visit Shige's Saimin Stand to sample this flavorsome soup and more.
Burgers are made with meat, cheese, tomatoes, onions, pickles and are seasoned with ketchup, mustard, or another sauce. The ingredients are placed between two halves of a bun. Typically, burgers are made with beef, but other types of meat, such as turkey, chicken, and salmon can be used as well.
Opened in 1990, Shige’s Saimin Stand is a tiny place in Wahiawa that is especially famous among locals for making saimin noodles in-house from scratch (which is kind of obvious from its name). This legendary dish alone is worth the travel out of town. Shige’s can be most accurately described as a cafeteria-style bistro with a real sense of community. They offer table and counter seating options in a welcoming yet very simple decor consisting of wooden tables, dozens of high school prom pictures, and a light yellow-red color tone.
Most of the diners you will see in Shige’s are long-time regulars often addressed by their names. Start your gastronomic journey with their signature saimin noodle soup and fried saimin with chicken. But don’t stop here and move onto other menu items like teri cheeseburger, barbecued teriyaki beef stick with mustard dip, pastrami sandwiches, and loco moco lunches. The place is always packed so be ready to wait in line for some time.
The unique location and tropical climate of Hawaiian paradise islands make the food scene here extremely diverse. Besides bountiful authentic dishes, the region is home to quite a few exotic fruits. Today, Hawaii is lucky to have a growing season that lasts all year long. At the Hilo farmers market, you can discover pitaya (dragon fruit), mountain apples, lilikoi (yellow passionfruit), lychee, white pineapple, and many more nature’s offerings. Not only do they taste heavenly sweet but also make for fantastic, vibrant pictures.
Have you tried any of these dishes? Share your experience with other foodies in the comment section below. And if you love cooking and are looking for new interesting recipes, check out our digital library.