In Hawaii, look out for ono grinds or “tasty food.” Eat like a local on your stay and try some of the different and unique cuisines the Islands have to offer. Here are a few dishes that you might see on menus and think: “what’s that?”
In its truest form, haupia is a coconut milk based traditional Hawaiian dessert with a texture similar to flan. The white gelatinous squares are a sweet luau staple. As with most traditional fare, it’s been given a modern kick in many restaurants that serve haupia pie with added flavors like chocolate or sweet potato. Pictured is a version of haupia pie with purple sweet potato mash and a macadamia crust.
No drink conjures images of crystal clear waves like a Blue Hawaii. Legendary bartender Harry Yee poured the first Blue Hawaii at what is now the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Visitors often asked for local style cocktails, but in the 1950s there was no such thing as Hawaiian cocktails, leaving Yee to often create them on the spot. He made the Blue Hawaii through experimenting with Blue Curaçao, vodka and rum to concoct one of the world’s most famous exotic drinks.
HULI HULI CHICKEN:
It’s hard to go wrong with a well basted grilled chicken. Huli-Huli chicken ™ is just that. It starts with a perfect sauce. Recipes vary, but usually include shoyu (soy sauce), brown sugar, ginger, garlic, ketchup and sherry. The chicken is marinated in this salty-sweet sauce then constantly basted with it while grilled. The chicken is turned regularly on the grill hence the name “huli-huli,” which means: “to turn.”
Similar to Japanese ramen, saimin is a broth-based soup with egg noodles and various meats, often including fish cake. As with most local grinds, saimin is influenced by many cultures. It borrows from ramen, Chinese mein and Filipino pancit. It’s developed into a beloved comfort food in Hawaii.
In ancient Hawaii, if a bowl of poi was present and uncovered for eating, any arguments had to stop in respect of this revered staple. Poi is still a prominent part of Hawaiian culture and cuisine. It’s made by cooking and then pounding the root of the taro plant while adding water until it reaches the desired viscous consistency. When fresh, poi has a relatively neutral flavor. Over time, it becomes increasingly sour, which some prefer. Try it with a hint of sugar or as a side to lomilomi salmon.
Taro chips are a modern twist on a traditional Hawaiian staple. The root or corm of the taro plant is peeled, thinly sliced, then either fried or baked to crisp perfection. You’ll taste salt and sweet as you bite into purple-streaked goodness. These tasty snacks are found at most local grocery stores or as a side at a variety of Waikiki restaurants.
Hawaii is one of the lead suppliers of shrimp in the U.S., so it should be no surprise that a delectable dish, such as the garlic shrimp, has come to satisfy locals and visitors alike. The shrimp, best when harvested from local farms, is pan fried with fresh garlic and laid on steaming white rice, often paired with mixed greens or macaroni salad. These fragrant crustaceans combine a blend of sea taste with rich garlic butter.
Nothing satisfies a day in the sun and sweet cravings like shave ice. Unlike Mainland snow cones, shave ice has a finer consistency and usually has your choice of ice cream or azuki beans (sweet red beans), or both as its base, and shaved ice is piled high on top. Then comes the fun part. Customers can top their shave ice with any of their favorite flavors. The popular “rainbow” is a combination of strawberry, pineapple or lemon, and vanilla. Add a “snow-cap” — a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk on top — to finish off this cold confection.
Laulau translates to “leaf, leaf,” named after the taro leaves used to wrap the meat. Preparation starts with putting Hawaiian salt on either pork or chicken and butterfish, known locally as walu. The meat and fish are wrapped first in taro leaves, then ti leaves to help heat the meat while it’s being steamed. Traditionally laulau was steamed in an imu, a pit dug underground with heated lava rocks, on a layer of banana leaves. The bitterness of the taro leaves paired with the saltiness of the meat and butterfish make for a unique taste dating back to ancient Hawaii. These mouth-watering bundles can be found on most Hawaiian food menus or at a luau.
There are many foods in Hawaii that are considered ono, but nothing does delicious super-sized like the loco moco. The palate pleaser originated in Hilo where local diners desired a taste of something different. The savory dish didn’t disappoint, and can now be found across the Islands. It starts with a bed of rice, topped with a hamburger patty, crowned with your choice of eggs, and smothered in gravy. A loco moco is commonly considered a breakfast item, but can be ordered any time of day. It’s perfect for a famished visitor.
Poke, (pronounced poh kay) is ubiquitous in any local gathering. No party would be complete without a tray of the savory fresh fish. Poke means “to cut or slice,” and the dish certainly features precision blade work to create perfectly cubed chunks of raw fish that is tossed with soy sauce, onion and other spices. If raw fish isn’t your favorite, there are other types of poke, including tofu poke or shrimp poke. There are also different flavors from spicy to slightly sweet using various types of fish, although ahi is most common. With all of the types of poke available, there’s certain to be one to suit your desires.
Originally from Portugal, malasadas made their way to the islands with Portuguese plantation workers in the late 1800’s. These donut-like confections are made from fried dough sprinkled with granulated sugar. Other variations have fillings such as chocolate or custard.
Spam isn’t native to Hawaii, but it certainly has found a home here. The salty canned-meat has become a local favorite, even inspiring an annual Spam Jam Festival in April. Spam musubi is the quintessential spam treat, consisting of sticky rice topped with fried spam and wrapped with nori (seaweed).
This popular Hawaiian side-dish is often paired with poi. Lomilomi salmon is a mixture of raw, salted salmon with diced tomatoes and sweet Maui onions. Sometimes it also includes pepper flakes for a little spice. This dish is usually spotted at a luau or in the poke section at grocery stores.
Plate lunch is as simple as it is delicious. It usually consists of white rice, macaroni salad, and a choice of meat. Popular meats are steak, garlic shrimp, chicken katsu or kalua pork to name a few. Some of the best plate lunches are found on food trucks around the island, including Oahu’s North Shore. If you don’t want to take the drive to the North Shore, check out Pau Hana Market on Waikiki’s Beachwalk Dr. to try food trucks in a permanent installation.