When you think of Hawaii, the first things that come to mind are clear, sandy beaches, warm, breezy weather and that feeling of Aloha. For most travelers, a way to immerse yourself in a culture is through food. Hawaiian foods are an eclectic blend of Polynesian, traditional and American influences that create a one-of-a-kind culinary experience. Combining spicy and sweet flavors with fresh fish, pork and local vegetables and fruits make meals that are satisfying in all the right ways. The following five dishes are must-have specialties of the paradise islands of Hawaii that you must try.
One of the most iconic food staples on the Hawaiian islands is taro. This plant’s leaves and roots are both edible and delicious with a variety of applications. For the traditional dish laulau, it’s the taro leaves we are concerned with, providing both the wrapping for the dish and an essential component of it as well.
Laulau is traditionally made with seasoned pork wrapped in taro leaves and cooked underground with superheated rocks. This smokes the meat while rendering the taro leaves in the same way that mustard greens or spinach might be cooked down with bacon. The result is a delicious, healthy plate of barbeque that you won’t ever forget.
More recently it has become common to find laulau made with other meats as well, including fish or poultry.
Common among the island nations of the Pacific, fresh raw fish is a dietary staple. Like the sashimi of Japan or ceviche of Peru, poke is a dish composed mainly of cubes of raw fish and a marinade, served over rice. The most common marinades are spicy mayo and shoyu, which is soy sauce, salt, and sweet onions.
Poke are usually made with ahi tuna, but just about any fresh fish can be used depending on where you are at on the islands. With a taste that is immediately briny and vibrant and full of umami from the seaweed and soy sauce, poke is absolutely mandatory for seafood lovers.
The other staple dish derived from the taro plant, poi is a sticky paste made from pounding out the taro root. The root is steamed or baked to make it pliable, and then pounded out with flavoring and water added. The end result is like a pudding, but the mouth-feel of taro is wholly unique. Served without added flavors, poi is sour and takes some getting used to, but the fact that it’s unlike any other food makes it very addicting. The fresher the taro root, the sweeter the poi, but it’s a tradition to harvest the root and let it ferment, which produces the sourness. Sour poi is more commonly served as a side to savory foods, whereas fresh poi is used more as a dessert, mixed with milk and sugar.
A not-to-be-missed dish in Hawaiian cuisine is Kalua pig. Often cooked whole in an imu, which is an underground rock oven, a Kalua pig is as much spectacle as it is delectable. Cooking slowly for hours results in a tender affair, with the meat presented in its smoky glory without the sugary sauces we often associate with barbeque. Accompaniments include thin-sliced seaweed salads, rice and fresh fruit like pineapple or lilikoi to bring out the subtle sweetness of the pork.
Spam (yes, that Spam)
Pork is very well-loved on the Hawaiian islands and Spam is no exception. Brought over after World War to feed hungry GIs, Spam kind of flooded the island which resulted in the locals applying it to their everyday cooking. It became hugely popular and remains a staple of Hawaiian lunches to this day.
Don’t believe us? Go to just about anywhere in Hawaii and ask for Spam musubi. It’s an incredibly popular snack that looks like sushi, with a slab of fried Spam wrapped in seaweed on a bed of rice. It cannot be overstated how popular this dish is and it’s so accessible and affordable, there’s no reason to decry it just because it’s Spam.
If you’re planning a vacation to Hawaii, you need to try these foods. Hawaii is a cultural melting pot of flavors and as a result, has some of the most delicious and unique foods in the Pacific.