The food in Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures with influences from all over the world: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, American, and Mexican.
First, there was native Hawaiian cuisine, but over the years, the waves of immigrants brought their own food culture, adding more flavored layers to the islander way of cooking. This is why when you taste a local Hawaiian dish, you get the chance to experience this mix of specific ingredients and styles of cooking from so many corners of the world. It’s like traveling to different places at the same time.
Below are some of the best Hawaiian local dishes you should try when traveling to the Islands:
Laulau is a native Hawaiian dish, usually made with chicken, pork, or squid (Squid laulau). Pieces of meat are wrapped in a luau or taro leaves, cooked, and then placed for roasting in an underground oven.
You really can’t visit Hawaii without trying at least once a Poke bowl! For me, it was the first time tasting poke, and it was love at first sight. A Poke bowl is made with chopped raw fish (poke) marinated in soy sauce or spicy sauce and served with rice, seaweed, Maui onions, peppers, and different seasonings.
It’s pork canned meat, but Hawaiians love it! Many local recipes use Spam as the main ingredient: Spam Musubi, Spam Fries, and Loco Moco. It’s versatile and goes well in countless combinations: with rice, macaroni, potatoes, eggs, or vegetables, eaten as it is, from the can, or fried.
Garlic Shrimp on North Shore
Oahu’s North Shore is famous for the beautiful beaches and the monster waves during the winter but also for the food trucks lined along the coast. Tourists and locals alike come here to sample this mouthwatering dish. Best places to taste the garlic shrimp: Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck and Romy’s Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp Truck.
The famous Kalua Pig consists of pork shoulder slowly cooked in an underground oven (called “imu”), wrapped in ti and banana leaves. When you attend a luau – the traditional Hawaiian festive dinner, one of the attractions of the evening is the opening of the imu.
Cured salmon, mixed with finely chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, and cilantro, make for a tasty fishy salad and a renowned Hawaiian dish.
A favorite Hawaiian snack, Spam Musubi, is a roll made with rice, fried Spam, and dried seaweed. Its name comes from the Japanese snack Musubi (rice balls wrapped in seaweed). The combination of tastes will at least surprise you, and either there’s gonna be love at first bite or not. Spam Musubi is sold everywhere in Hawaii, and you can find it in many grocery stores.
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For a native Hawaiian, Poi is the ultimate companion of every local dish. With a consistency similar to light mashed potatoes, Poi is made from taro, a plant widely spread in the Pacific islands. Once, the heart-shaped leaves of taro were used by the islanders in sacred rituals. Now it’s Poi’s main ingredient and also an excellent source of minerals. You can eat Poi as a side dish or as a sauce for many Hawaiian foods.
Pineapple ice cream from Dole Plantation
Served under the name of Dole Whip, the pineapple ice cream from Dole Plantation is so refreshing under the hot Hawaiian sun. Get your ice cream and then visit the Pineapple Maze or discover more about the pineapple, macadamia, and coffee plantations in Hawaii.
Hula Pie at Duke’s Waikiki
The hotel, named after the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, is located right on Waikiki Beach and proudly serves one of the most loved Hawaiian desserts. Hula Pie is made of macadamia nut ice cream over a chocolate cookie crust, topped with chocolate fudge, whipped cream, and chopped macadamia nuts.
This is Hawaiian comfort food, so loved by the locals. It’s far from being a light and healthy meal, but it’s worth trying. Basically, Loco Moco consists of a burger patty over rice, with two sunny-side-up eggs, everything covered in gravy sauce. Rainbow Drive-Inn and L&L Drive-Inn are two of the places where you should try a Loco Moco while in Oahu.
Perhaps one of the best-known Hawaiian desserts, Shave Ice is a cooling treat more than welcome after a hot day on the beach. The ice is finely shaved, covered in different syrups (many of them are from local fruits – guava, pineapple, coconut, lilikoi), and then topped with condensed milk, mochi, or azuki beans. There are many Shave Ice stands in Oahu where you can sample this famous Hawaiian iced treat, but if you don’t have enough time to visit more of them, go to Matsumoto’s Shave Ice or Waiola Shave Ice.
Haupia is a sweet coconut pudding, usually served at luaus (traditional Hawaiian dinners) in Hawaii. Depending on how it’s made, Haupia can have the consistency of pudding or jelly. You can eat it as it is or as one of the main ingredients in different types of desserts. My all-time favorite was Haupia Pie with a creamy sweet potato crust.
Acai or other tropical bowls
In the tropical fruits’ paradise, everything is possible when it comes to creamy and refreshing fruit bowls. Try a classic Acai Bowl (I don’t think I’ve been eating a bad Acai Bowl in Hawaii) or something a bit different with lots of tropical fruits. The Monkey Bowl from The Sunrise Shack (with tons of banana peanut butter and cacao nibs) was one of the best I had in Oahu.
Malasadas are deep-fried Portuguese doughnuts (without a hole), and they are quite a huge hit here in Hawaii. The place where everybody goes for this sugary treat is Leonard’s Bakery – they claim to start baking Malasadas back in 1950. Enjoy a hot Malasada coated with sugar, cinnamon, or li-hing, simple or filled with custard, chocolate, coconut, macadamia nut, guava, or the flavor of the month.
You simply can’t visit the Islands without having at least one Mai Tai. Indulge yourself with this famous Polynesian cocktail while visiting Hawaii. The place is irrelevant – a tiki bar, on the beach, a shack on the street – because Mai Tais are great everywhere here. Did you know its name comes from the Tahitian word “maita’i,” which translates as “good” or “excellence”?
Kona Coffee from Island Vintage Coffee
Island Vintage Coffee was my favorite place to get my everyday coffee in Oahu. In the morning, before going to the beach, or late in the afternoon when I needed a bit more caffeine to keep me going all day long. Although it’s a coffee chain, they have great coffee and food as well – actually, for a hearty brunch, this is one of the best places to go.
Pancakes from Eggs’n Things
A popular eatery for both locals and tourists in Oahu, Eggs’n Things is a place where you can’t go wrong when it comes to breakfast. They are famous for the fluffy pancakes covered in tropical fruits and topped with whipped cream, but also, the omelets are incredibly tasty. If you want to check their saying – “the best breakfast in Hawaii” – go there any morning and convince yourself. But keep in mind that it can often be crowded, so prepare to wait.