Going to Hawaii? 10 Must-Eat Local Specialties

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10 must-eat local foods for your vacation to Hawaii. Naomi Tomky

The Mike Myers line about Scottish food is all too easily applied to Hawaiian cuisine: on first look, much of it seems to be based on a dare. Canned meat, a purplish-gray mush that is most often compared to wallpaper paste, and lunches that are customarily served with mayonnaise-laden noodles accompanied by rice. Given the time and space, I'd gladly defend the pounded taro-root dish called poi that serves as the butt of tour guides' jokes about Hawaiian food, and offer historical perspective on the cultural (if not nutritional) value of plate lunches. But it takes long enough to get where you're going on island time, so I recommend that you get straight to the best food in Hawaii: the kind of crazy good local food that the people who live there actually eat every day. I'm talking about the dishes whose soy-sauce drenched roots tie islanders back to their Asian roots, the bites that present the bounty of the surrounding sea in its freshest form, and those beachside snacks that embody the idea that everything tastes better outdoors.

Step outside the resorts, turn off the tourist tracks crowded with smoothie shops and TSA-approved pineapple packs, and suddenly it's obvious that Hawaii is as far from Los Angeles as New York is in miles, and even further, culturally. Hawaiian food culture incorporates ingredients and inspiration from all over the world, adapting them to the island way of life. Even familiar foods receive special treatment in Hawaii, gaining accoutrements the way tourists do fresh-flower leis upon arrival. Macadamia nuts stud French toast—made from Hawaiian sweet bread—and apple bananas end up on pancakes and in ice cream. Hawaiian food is inclusionary, marrying Chinese and Japanese noodle soups to create saimin and turning army rations into what looks like oversized sushi.

Prior to European contact, traditional Hawaiian cuisine included (the infamous) poi, kalua pork (pit-cooked whole pig), and types of raw fish salads that were later refined into what's now called poke (pronounced poh-kay). After Captain James Cook's arrival, a new cuisine evolved, something which is called "local food." The first wave of immigrants to Hawaii was Chinese, followed by Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Puerto Ricans. Throw in a few Mormon Samoans, Mexican cowboys, and American GIs and edges of incoming cuisines faded away, all melting into something entirely Hawaiian. Culinary historian Rachel Laudan says local food "survives because it, like pidgin [local dialect], is one of the few experiences that the peoples of Hawaii share." Unfortunately, like pidgin, visitors don't always share in that experience.

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Local food, this mishmash of a cuisine, is everywhere on the islands and is what locals eat everyday. It is the ensaymada (Filipino butter-topped pastry) they pick up on the way to work and it's the butter mochi (bite-sized sweet rice flour dessert) they bring to a potluck. It's that plate lunch that weighs more than a toddler and the bento trays at the lunch counter, displaying fried chicken and Portuguese sausage at room temperature.

After traditional Hawaiian cuisine and local food, there is a third segment of food in Hawaii: the early 1990s saw a revolution called "Hawaiian Regional Cuisine." Influential chefs started a movement replacing standard hotel fare with dishes made from local ingredients, and it's only grown and expanded since. These are often the restaurants where tourists enjoy food similar to what they are used to in fine-dining restaurants at home (meat or fish, vegetable, single starch), but prepared with local ingredients. As the movement grew, it brought a lot of attention to a tiny segment of the food grown and served on the island, but this style of Hawaiian cuisine is divorced from the daily fare of most people who live in Hawaii. It is built on a foundation of French or American fine-dining, with the wallpaper of Hawaiian-grown food.

It's not easy to find good traditional Hawaiian food (most visitors see that style of food only in in the chafing dishes of high-quantity—and generally, low-quality—commercial luaus). On the other hand, it's almost too easy to find decent fancypants Hawaiian regional cuisine, leaving visitors wondering why they should bother leaving the resort or driving across the island to venture into the unfamiliar world of local food. The answer is, in no particular order: poke, manapua, spam musubi, fish tacos, saimin, huli huli chicken, garlic shrimp, loco moco, malasadas, and shave ice. In other words, the ten most delicious dishes that really separate Hawaiian food from mainlander food.

Poke

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Poke is one of the few local dishes that span all three styles of Hawaiian food. Pre-contact Hawaiians ate raw fish with limu (a local seaweed) and oil-rich kukui nuts (also known as candlenuts). In the 1970s, poke became a potluck and supermarket staple, eventually taking on such a strong cultural identity that Honolulu Magazine called it "Hawaii's hamburger." With the advent of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, poke was ripe for adaptation to high-end appetizers, and ring-molded, jewel-toned fish glistened with sesame oil on expensive plates.

The local-style poke you should grab for a beachside picnic, though, will likely come in a clear plastic deli container. Most places will have at least a few variation of fresh ahi poke alone, with seaweed, Maui onions, avocado, tobiko, spicy mayo, or avocado. The best spots boast rows of gleaming fish, intriguing customers with wasabi-flavored octopus or confusing them with kimchi sea snails. Like the soft, yielding bite of raw fish, most of the flavors of poke will be familiar to seasoned sushi eaters: the toasted nuttiness of sesame oil, the rich saltiness of fish roe, and spice in the fruity form of peppers or sinus-clearning heat of wasabi. Pick it up to-go from a poke shop such as Da Poke Shack on the Big Island or from a fish market such as Tamashiro in Honolulu or Eskimo Candy on Maui. The best tasting poke is made with fresh fish, so watch out for the (legally-required) label on poke made from previously-frozen fish.

Manapua

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Manapua is a delicious thing filled with pork. That's both what the Hawaiian words mean that make up the name, and what it is. It's a near relative to the Chinese char siu bao—steamed pork bun. Other than growing a bit to a Hawaiian-sized portion, the sweet pork filling and steamed bun haven't really changed since they came over with Cantonese immigrants in the 19th century. Back then, the fluffy white buns were stacked in baskets, hung from sticks, and sold by street food hawkers. Later, the red-tinged pork (rosy from the addition of saltpeter) in buns was sold by traveling manapua men—and you thought the ice cream man was the highlight of the neighborhood.

Now you can find them on bakery shelves or at nearly any convenience store, such as the Lawai Menehune Food Mart on Kaua'i. The best manapua are eaten while still fluffed high from the steamer, the light roll bearing a sheen on the outside, a kind of skin that holds the bun tight. The filling—still warm—is ample, stuffing the cavity of the bun nearly to the point of bursting. The pork, in bite-size slices, slips around in a sweet, but not cloying sauce, which is just thick enough to prevent sogging the pillowy bun.

Spam Musubi

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Spam musubi is the ultimate portable snack. It's based on musubi (A.K.A. onigiri), the Japanese snack of rice balls wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with powerfully flavored ingredients. But instead of pickled plums or salted fish roe, inside you'll find a slab of grilled Spam, glazed with a little soy sauce and sugar. The porky meat needs little help gaining flavor, but the cooking makes it an easier pill for Spam rookies to swallow. The slices crisp up at the edges, aided by the caramelization of the glaze, making it not unlike a piece of thick, complex ham steak—but without any chewiness. The rice, simply formed with a musubi maker (or an empty Spam can) serves to mellow out the strong flavor of Spam. (Want to make your own at home? We have a recipe.) Spam could likely survive the apocalypse and not be worse for the wear, but the crunch of the nori that wraps the meat and the rice together will lose its snappy crunch as times goes by, so the fresher the musubi, the better. To keep the rice in its best shape, musubi isn't refrigerated, so it's sold wrapped in plastic on the counter of nearly every convenience store, grocery store, and lunch counter in the state.

Fish Tacos

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While fish in fancier Hawaii restaurants tends to be served as a fillet in the center of the plate, if a local is picking up fish for lunch, it's most likely to be wrapped in a tortilla. It would be a fitting narrative for fish tacos to have come over in the 1830s with the wave of Mexican immigrants, but while the cattle-roping cowboys known as paniolos (slang for españols, or Spanish) came from California (then part of Mexico) knew a lot about beef, but little about seafood. Instead, it was a later immigrant group from California, the (American) surfers of the late 20th century, who found a new convenient vehicle for Hawaii's bounty of fresh fish. Unlike their Baja brethren, the best Hawaiian fish tacos don't get sheathed in breading, just a quick coating of spices and a trip to the grill or flattop. The freshness of the ono, mahi mahi, and tuna shines above everything at the best places—and that's why there's no flavor-sapping breading on them. Crunchy salsas, often spiked with tropical additions like mango or pineapple add a Hawaiian flavor. Toppings vary from place to place: look for barebones ahi tacos—just fish and pico de gallo—at Da Crack in Poipu on Kaua'i, while the stands that line Maui's northwest coast tend to offer a cabbage slaw over ono (wahoo) with a creamy sauce. It's hard not to love Ono Tacos in Lahaina for the play on words—ono being both a fish and the Hawaiian word for delicious--and for being truthful in their description, especially in regards to the toppings in the salsa bar perched out front.

Saimin

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Originating on plantations, where workers from all immigrant groups worked and lived together, saimin is sort of an edible mosaic of the cuisines that make up Hawaiian local food. Especially when it comes with sliced deli ham as one of the toppings (along with the typical fishcake, and green onion) as it does at the James Beard award-winning Hamura's Saimin on Kaua'i.

Saimin is pure Hawaiian comfort food, and even if it's unfamiliar to you you'll find it hard not to smile as you sip spoonfuls of the subtle dashi broth spiked with pops of color and flavor from green onions. Pulling noodles out of soup is a near universal joy, and Hawaii's version is chock full of regional touches, starting with the seafood base, as salty as the never-far-away sea, and stretching to the fresh noodles made in the shop or sourced from the area's numerous local noodle factories. Calling saimin "Hawaiian ramen" is a bit of an oversimplification (though it's bolstered by local fast-food chain L&L Barbecue's ramen burger spin-off, the saimin burger.) In fact, though, saimin developed separately from ramen, though both start with Chinese wheat noodles in a Japanese broth. The broth is thinner than that of rich bone-broth-based Japanese ramen, and is mild and salty, drawing on dried shrimp and fish for flavor.

Huli Huli Chicken

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Turn, turn, turn. That's the key to the Hawaiian version of grilled teriyaki chicken invented by poultry farmer Ernest Morgado. Huli means to turn, and the key to cooking the sweetened soy sauce marinated and basted chicken is to turn it over when the first side is done to keep the glaze from burning. The sugars in the sauce caramelize on the bird, giving it crispy edges, and the inside of a good version is remarkably juicy. Clouds of fragrant, teriyaki-perfumed air billow out from the grills during preparation, making this a classic dish at fundraising events and roadside stands, such as the ones you'll find toward the end of Maui's Road to Hana.

Garlic Shrimp

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Flat coastal land filled with freshwater shrimp farms and big wave surfers in search of cheap, filling, delicious food combine to create the perfect environment for a fleet of food trucks selling garlic-doused shrimp on Oahu's North Shore. Giovanni's white trucks are the originals, but the plates of butter-laden crustaceans dot parking lots up and down the shore. Generous portions of of plump, curled shrimp are sauteed with what appears to be an entire head of garlic, diced finely. The tiny chunks work their way into every nook and cranny of the shrimp, under the shells, which are crisp from the pan, while a butter-thickened sauce spills over the generous scoops of rice. More than two decades after the original truck opened, boasting what it called shrimp scampi, there are now shrimp spots throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Giovanni's retains its top reputation, though, along with neighboring Romy's—which has its own shrimp farm on site, thus promising the freshest plates.

Loco Moco

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Indulge, you're on vacation. Let the best part of the hamburger (the patty) meets the best part of Thanksgiving (the gravy) and the best of the world of carbs (that'd be rice), all topped by the queen of dish-toppers, the fried egg. When the yolk breaks, it runs, thickening the already slow moving gravy and pulling all of the flavors in together. The origin story of the loco moco is murky, other than that it first appeared in the late 1940s and is named for the Spanish word for crazy. It is not—no matter what Food Network Magazine was once laughed off the islands for saying—a burger, though it has the same convertible style as a burger. The meat is often swapped for—or added to—Spam or Portuguese sausage (a garlicky, slightly sweet take on linguiça), and the gravy can be altered with chili, stew, or teriyaki sauce. Cafe 100 in Hilo, on the Big Island, boasts more than 30 different loco moco versions.

Malasadas

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These sugary, no-hole doughnuts have stayed pretty true to the original that arrived with immigrants from Portugal to Hawaii. Early on, malasadas were saved for Fat Tuesday celebrations (like beignets and paczki), but these days, they're an everyday treat. The traditional malasada is a simple yeasted, deep-fried dough rolled in sugar, either round or occasionally square, but never with a hole in the center. Rich with eggs and butter, the best malasadas manage to be both light and chewy at the same time, served warm, with a fluffy, springy interior and a crisp outside. Nearly every place specializing in malasadas does cream- and fruit-filled versions as well, but those mean waiting until the malasada has cooled, which is less than ideal. At either end of the Big Island, Punalu'u Bake Shop and Tex Drive In serve malasadas worth stopping for. Punalu'u (the southernmost bakery in the US) does filled versions using the island's tropical fruits, while Tex, on the north end, does the traditional plain version in the less common square shape.

Shave Ice

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A truly great shave ice (like the one served at Ululani's Hawaiian Shave Ice on Maui) requires quite a bit more skill and care than pouring syrup over crushed ice for, say, a snow cone. The light, fluffy flakes of shaved ice absorb more of the flavoring than crushed ice does, and with the proper cuddling and patting motions the server uses to shape the dessert, the syrup should flow through the loosely woven ice, keeping every bite equally flavored. A poorly made shave ice is a sad sight, leaving the eater with wide swaths of unflavored ice. The discriminating shave ice eater will make sure to get one made with care, choosing from syrup flavors ranging from local fruits such as lilikoi to trendy flavors such as Thai tea. While ice cream is often improved with toppings, shave ice one-ups it by offering add-ons that go underneath (including ice cream itself and sweet red adzuki beans) as well as toppings. The best toppings are the local favorites: the chewy sweet rice dumplings called mochi, which offer the very opposite texture to the cold, hard ice, and tart li hing mui powder (a ground-up pickled plum skin), which is as much in contrast with the sweet syrup as the mochi is with the ice.