The Hawaiian Islands are unlike any other place in the United States — and we’re not just saying that! With stunning beaches everywhere you turn and temperate weather conditions that seem far too good to be true, there are tons of reasons why millions of people visit the islands each year. However, one aspect of Hawaiian culture that remains heavily underrated is the food. If ever you find yourself vacationing in Hawaii, look less like a tourist by trying some of these local staples you’ll miss the moment you leave the islands.
While Spam may not be the most mouthwatering of meats at the market, try out this popular lunch and snack food — it’s definitely worth the experience. The texture and initial taste can be off-putting to some, but what makes Spam musubi so popular is the way it’s grilled, its sweet teriyaki flavor and, of course, its convenience. Spam came to the islands during World War II with the large military presence and was combined with the Japanese American culture and cuisine in Hawaii; thus, Spam musubi was born.
When you compare to the poke in Hawaii to poke everywhere else, the difference is night and day. Poke bowls have become quite ubiquitous — as you can even find some in Berkeley — but the experience here is reminiscent of the one you might have at Chipotle, seeing as you can combine fish with sacrilegious toppings such as corn. Traditional poke adopts a much simpler approach: Ahi, or yellowfin tuna, is traditionally used, the sauce comes pre-mixed, and additional ingredients are minimal. Sometimes, less really is more, but we’ll let your taste buds be the judge of that.
Consisting of pork shoulder and butterfish wrapped inside taro leaves followed by tougher ti leaves, laulau is an integral dish of Native Hawaiian cuisine. Traditionally, laulau was placed inside an imu, which is an underground pit with a layering of hot rocks and dampened banana leaves, but nowadays, most places will prepare the dish using a steamer. As with many meals in Hawaii, you can expect it with a generous serving of rice and macaroni salad on the side, which is referred to as a “plate lunch.” Sometimes, other types of meats are incorporated into the lualau, like chicken thighs or corned beef. At the end of the day, laulau is a dish that is hard to come by outside of Hawaii, and its tenderness makes it difficult to resist.
If you’ve ever been to or seen a luau feast before, the complete, slow-cooked pig is what is known as kalua pork. You can find kalua pork at a number of places on the island without actually going to a luau, and it’s typically served shredded and in a similar “plate lunch” style to the laulau. What makes the taste of the pork so distinct is the use of ti leaves to cover the meat, which allows the meat to retain its juiciness and tenderness.
When Portuguese immigrants came to Hawaii to work on plantations at the end of the 19th century, they brought along with them the delectably fried and sugary pastry called the “malasada,” which has a taste comparable to that of a doughnut. You’ll find these treats at carnivals and food trucks across the island, but the most popular joint is Leonard’s Bakery, which has become a household name in Hawaii. The old-fashioned and uncomplicated aesthetic of the bakery provides a nostalgic feel and the promise of good-tasting food.
Although the Hawaiian Islands may be small in terms of their surface area, they still pack a mighty punch of flavor that you have to taste for yourself in the near future.