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The History Of Hawai`i In 9 Dishes


by Lindi Ho



Welcome to the beautiful islands of Hawai`i, a place known for its stunning landscapes, vibrant culture, and of course, its delicious cuisine. In this article, we will take you on a culinary journey through the history of Hawai`i, exploring the unique dishes that have become iconic to this tropical paradise.


Hawaiian cuisine is a fusion of many different influences, reflecting the diverse cultures that have shaped the islands over the years. From the traditional foods of the Native Hawaiians to the flavors brought by immigrants from Japan, China, the Philippines, and Portugal, Hawaiian cuisine is a true melting pot of flavors.


Throughout history, food has played an essential role in Hawaiian culture, serving not only as sustenance but also as a way to celebrate and connect with others. The dishes we will delve into are not just tasty meals; they represent stories of tradition, heritage, and the people that have called Hawai`i home.


So, grab a seat at the virtual dinner table as we dive into the history of Hawai`i in 9 delicious dishes. From staple foods to popular street eats, each recipe carries a piece of the islands’ rich culinary heritage. Get ready to whet your appetite and discover the flavors that make Hawai`i truly unique.


Dish 1: Poi

When it comes to traditional Hawaiian cuisine, few dishes are as iconic as poi. Made from the root of the taro plant, poi has been a staple food in the Hawaiian diet for centuries. This versatile dish is simple in its preparation but rich in cultural significance.


To make poi, the taro root is first cooked and then pounded into a smooth, thick paste. The consistency can range from slightly lumpy to silky smooth, depending on personal preference. Traditionally, poi is eaten with the fingers, scooping up a small amount and slowly savoring its unique flavor and texture.


Not only is poi a delicious and filling food, but it also holds great importance in Hawaiian culture. It is often referred to as the “bread of the Hawaiian people” due to its role as a staple in the diet. In ancient times, it was considered a sacred food, reserved for royalty and special occasions.


Poi is not just a culinary delight; it is also a symbol of the deep connection between the Hawaiian people and the land. The cultivation of taro requires careful farming techniques and a deep understanding of the environment. This spiritual connection to the land is evident in the way taro is grown and the respect given to its harvest.


Whether enjoyed on its own or as an accompaniment to other dishes, poi has a unique taste that is hard to compare to anything else. It has a slightly sour, earthy flavor that pairs well with savory or sweet dishes. Many locals also claim that poi tastes better with each successive day it is kept, as the flavor develops and matures.


Today, you can experience poi in various ways throughout the islands. It can be found at traditional Hawaiian luaus, where it is served alongside other traditional foods. You can also find it in modern interpretations in fusion restaurants, where chefs incorporate poi into creative dishes that showcase its versatility.


So, if you want to truly experience the taste of Hawai`i, be sure to try poi. It’s not just a dish; it’s a connection to the vibrant Hawaiian culture and a window into the history of the islands.


Dish 2: Kalua Pig

No visit to Hawai`i is complete without indulging in the mouthwatering flavors of kalua pig. This traditional Hawaiian dish is a true centerpiece of feasts and celebrations, showcasing the rich culinary history of the islands.


Kalua pig gets its name from the traditional cooking method used to prepare it. The word “kalua” means “to cook in an underground oven” in the Hawaiian language. The pig is seasoned with salt, wrapped in banana leaves, and then placed in the imu, a pit filled with hot rocks and covered with earth. Over several hours, the pig slow-cooks, resulting in tender, smoky, and savor-filled meat that practically melts in your mouth.


Traditionally, kalua pig was reserved for special occasions and celebrations like weddings, birthdays, or festivals. The process of cooking the pig in an imu was a communal effort, bringing together family and friends to prepare the feast. It was a time of bonding and celebration, where everyone gathered around the imu to witness the pig’s transformation into a succulent delicacy.


Today, you can find kalua pig on the menu of many restaurants and at traditional Hawaiian luaus, where it remains a staple. It is typically served shredded and accompanied by other dishes such as poi, lomi lomi salmon, and rice. The smoky flavor and tender texture of the meat make it a crowd-pleaser for both locals and visitors alike.


While kalua pig is traditionally cooked in an imu, variations of the dish have evolved over time to accommodate modern cooking methods. Many people now prepare kalua pig using an oven or slow cooker, maintaining the essence of the dish while adapting to contemporary cooking techniques.


Aside from its delectable taste, kalua pig also embodies the spirit of aloha and the importance of coming together as a community. Just like the process of cooking it, enjoying kalua pig is often a shared experience, bringing people together to enjoy the flavors and traditions of Hawai`i.


So, if you find yourself in Hawai`i, be sure to savor a plate of kalua pig. Let the smoky aroma and tender meat take you on a journey through the rich history of Hawaiian cuisine, creating memories that will last a lifetime.


Dish 3: Lomi Lomi Salmon

One of the most beloved and refreshing dishes in Hawaiian cuisine is lomi lomi salmon. This traditional dish showcases the flavors of the ocean and the vibrant cultural heritage of the islands.


Lomi lomi salmon is a dish that combines simple ingredients to create a burst of flavor. The main components include diced salmon, tomatoes, onions, and green onions, all mixed together with a generous squeeze of fresh citrus juice. The ingredients are gently massaged together, giving the dish its name “lomi lomi,” which means “to massage” in the Hawaiian language.


Originally, lomi lomi salmon was prepared by Hawaiians as a way to preserve and consume the abundance of salmon that migrated to Hawai`i during certain times of the year. It was a way to make the fish last longer and create a refreshing and nutritious dish. Today, the dish has become a popular side dish that is often served at luaus, family gatherings, and other festive occasions.


The flavors of lomi lomi salmon are a wonderful representation of the island’s diverse culinary influences. The salmon adds a rich and silky texture, while the tomatoes bring a burst of juiciness and acidity. The onions and green onions contribute a sharp and fragrant note, while the citrus juice enhances all the flavors and brings a refreshing tang to the dish.


One of the most fascinating aspects of lomi lomi salmon is the technique used to prepare it. The gentle massaging of the ingredients not only combines them but also helps to break down the fish and infuse all the flavors together. This hands-on approach adds a personal touch and a connection to the dish that is deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture.


Whether enjoyed as a side dish or as a topping for other foods such as poi or kalua pig, lomi lomi salmon adds a burst of freshness and brightness to any meal. Its vibrant colors and flavors reflect the vibrant spirit of the islands and the bounty of the ocean.


So, the next time you visit Hawai`i, make sure to try lomi lomi salmon. Let the flavors take you on a culinary adventure, transporting you to the shores of the Hawaiian islands and immersing you in the rich heritage of Hawaiian cuisine.


Dish 4: Laulau

Get ready to tantalize your taste buds with the flavorful delight known as laulau. This traditional Hawaiian dish is a true labor of love, showcasing the artistry and dedication of its preparation.


Laulau consists of layers of butterfish or pork, wrapped in taro leaves, and steamed to perfection. The combination of tender meat and earthy taro leaves creates a harmonious blend of flavors that is both hearty and satisfying. The dish is traditionally cooked in an imu, the underground oven used for cooking kalua pig, which infuses the laulau with a smoky aroma.


The origins of laulau date back to ancient days when the Native Hawaiians would cook their food in earth ovens as a means of preserving and flavoring their provisions. The cooking technique and the use of taro leaves as a wrapper have been passed down through generations, maintaining the dish’s cultural significance.


Preparing laulau requires skill and time. The ingredients are carefully layered and wrapped in taro leaves, creating a tight bundle that is then secured with ti leaves. This intricate process ensures that the flavors meld together and the meat remains moist and tender throughout the steaming process.


When the laulau is ready, the fragrant aroma fills the air, inviting everyone to gather and indulge in this beloved Hawaiian dish. The unwrapping of the ti leaves reveals a mouthwatering combination of moist meat infused with the flavors of the taro leaves and the smoky essence from the cooking process.


Laulau is often enjoyed as a meal on its own, but it can also be paired with other Hawaiian favorites like poi or rice. This versatile dish is a staple at luaus, family gatherings, and special occasions, serving as a centerpiece that brings people together to share in the unique flavors of Hawai`i.


Today, you can find laulau in many Hawaiian restaurants and even some mainland establishments serving Hawaiian cuisine. Chefs and home cooks alike continue to honor the traditions of making laulau while also adding their own twists and variations to suit modern tastes.


If you want to experience the true taste of Hawai`i, don’t miss the opportunity to try laulau. Let the flavors envelop your senses, transporting you to a time when food was not just sustenance but a celebration of culture and community.


Dish 5: Poke

Prepare your taste buds for a flavor explosion with the beloved Hawaiian dish known as poke. Pronounced “poh-kay,” this popular delicacy has gained worldwide acclaim for its fresh and vibrant flavors.


Poke is a traditional Hawaiian dish made with raw fish, typically tuna or octopus, marinated in a flavorful combination of soy sauce, sesame oil, green onions, and other seasonings. The word “poke” means “to slice or cut” in Hawaiian, referring to the way the fish is sliced into bite-sized pieces before being mixed with the marinade.


While poke has ancient roots in Hawaiian cuisine, it has evolved over the years with the influence of other cultures. Japanese and other Asian immigrants brought their techniques and flavors, adding a unique twist to the traditional dish. Today, you can find a wide variety of poke options, including salmon, shrimp, and even vegetarian alternatives like tofu or marinated vegetables.


Poke has become a staple in Hawaiian cuisine, enjoyed as a light and refreshing meal or as a pupu (appetizer). It is often served on a bed of rice or lettuce and garnished with ingredients like seaweed, avocado, or cucumber. The beauty of poke lies in its versatility, allowing for endless variations and the opportunity to cater to individual preferences.


What sets poke apart is the emphasis on using high-quality, fresh ingredients. In Hawai`i, you’ll find poke shops and fish markets where the fish is sourced locally, ensuring the utmost freshness. The combination of the raw fish and the bold flavors of the marinade creates a delicious and satisfying culinary experience.


With the popularity of poke spreading beyond the Hawaiian Islands, you can now find it in various parts of the world. Whether it’s at a local Hawai`i-style eatery or a trendy restaurant overseas, the flavors of poke continue to captivate food enthusiasts everywhere.


So, the next time you’re in Hawai`i or come across a poke establishment, be sure to give it a try. Experience the explosion of flavors, the freshness of the fish, and the celebration of Hawaiian cuisine. Poke will leave you craving for more and yearning to explore the endless possibilities of this delectable dish.


Dish 6: Plate Lunch

When hunger strikes in Hawai`i, there’s no better way to satisfy your appetite than with a plate lunch. This local favorite is a filling and hearty meal that has become a quintessential part of the island’s culinary scene. Be prepared for a delicious and satisfying feast!


A plate lunch typically consists of a protein, such as teriyaki chicken, loco moco, or kalbi short ribs, served alongside two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad. The origins of the plate lunch can be traced back to the early 20th century when plantation workers from diverse backgrounds would bring their homemade lunches to work.


Today, plate lunches are enjoyed by locals and visitors alike, and the options are endless. From Hawaiian comfort food to Asian-inspired dishes and American classics, you can find a plate lunch to suit any craving. The generous portions and flavorful combinations make it a satisfying and convenient meal to enjoy on the go or at a casual eatery.


What makes a plate lunch truly special is the fusion of flavors from different cultures. You’ll find influences from Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and Portuguese cuisines, reflecting the diverse ethnic makeup of Hawai`i. This cultural fusion creates a unique dining experience that celebrates the island’s rich heritage.


The plate lunch tradition also emphasizes the spirit of ohana, or family. Many plate lunch establishments are family-run businesses, passed down through generations, and they take pride in serving up delicious home-cooked meals. The warm and welcoming atmosphere adds to the overall dining experience, making you feel like a part of the Hawai`i community.


Whether you’re grabbing a plate lunch to enjoy at the beach or sitting down at a local eatery, this iconic dish is sure to leave you feeling satisfied. The combination of flavors, the comforting nature of the meal, and the sense of camaraderie that comes with sharing a plate lunch make it an essential part of the Hawai`i food culture.


So, the next time you’re in Hawai`i, be sure to indulge in a plate lunch. Treat your taste buds to the delicious fusion of flavors and experience the heart and soul of the island’s food scene.


Dish 7: Spam Musubi

If there’s one snack that perfectly combines Hawaiian and Asian influences, it’s the beloved spam musubi. This handheld delight has become a go-to snack for locals and visitors alike, offering a tasty and convenient way to satisfy hunger cravings.


Spam musubi is a simple yet flavorful creation consisting of a block of rice topped with a slice of grilled spam, all wrapped together with a strip of nori (seaweed). The dish originated during World War II when canned spam became a prevalent food source in Hawai`i, thanks to its long shelf life and availability for the troops stationed on the islands.


Today, spam musubi has become a staple in Hawai`i’s culinary landscape, with different variations and interpretations popping up across the islands. Some versions include additional ingredients like teriyaki sauce, furikake (a Japanese seasoning), or even a fried egg, adding more layers of flavor and texture.


What makes spam musubi so popular is not only its simplicity and portability but also its irresistible taste. The combination of salty, savory spam and the tender, slightly sweet rice creates a satisfying bite that will keep you coming back for more. The nori adds a touch of umami and adds another dimension to the overall flavor profile.


Spam musubi can be found almost everywhere in Hawai`i, from local mom-and-pop shops to convenience stores and food trucks. It’s a popular snack to grab for a quick bite on the go or to pack for a day at the beach. Its affordability and accessibility make it a favorite among locals and visitors looking for a taste of authentic Hawai`i.


While spam musubi might seem like a humble snack, it represents the cultural fusion and culinary creativity that defines the island’s food scene. The combination of American spam, Japanese nori, and the local flavors and techniques create a unique treat that highlights the diversity and harmony of the Hawaiian culture.


So, if you find yourself in Hawai`i, don’t miss the chance to try this iconic snack. Let the flavors of spam musubi transport you to the shores of the islands, and savor the deliciousness that comes with each delightful bite.


Dish 8: Haupia

Indulge in the smooth and creamy delight of haupia, a traditional Hawaiian dessert that will satisfy your sweet tooth. With its rich coconut flavor and velvety texture, haupia has become a beloved treat throughout the islands.


Haupia is a simple yet delicious dessert that is made from four basic ingredients: coconut milk, sugar, cornstarch, and water. It is commonly served as a gelatin-like square, similar to a custard or pudding. The coconut milk gives haupia its distinctive tropical flavor while the cornstarch acts as a thickening agent, creating its silky-smooth texture.


Historically, haupia was a staple at special occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, and luaus. It has deep roots in Hawaiian culture and is often associated with celebrations and the sharing of aloha. The simplicity of the dessert reflects the concept of appreciating the natural flavors and ingredients that the islands have to offer.


Haupia has also become a popular addition to other desserts and pastries. You can find it incorporated into pies, cakes, and even ice cream. Its creamy texture and coconut flavor add a tropical twist to these sweet treats, making them even more irresistible.


When it comes to serving haupia, there are endless possibilities. You can enjoy it on its own, chilled and firm, or as a topping for other desserts. Many people love to pair haupia with fresh fruits, such as mango or pineapple, for a delightful combination of flavors.


Whether you’re a coconut lover or simply enjoy trying new desserts, haupia is a must-try when visiting Hawai`i. Its luscious texture and tropical taste will transport you to the paradise of the islands with each delectable bite.


So, be sure to save room for haupia after your meal and let this traditional Hawaiian dessert add a sweet and heavenly touch to your culinary experience in Hawai`i.


Dish 9: Malasadas

Prepare yourself for a sugary delight with the mouthwatering treat known as malasadas. These fluffy, deep-fried Portuguese pastries have become a favorite indulgence among locals and visitors in Hawai`i.


Malasadas are made from a sweet dough that is fried until golden brown, resulting in a light and airy texture. They are typically coated in granulated sugar and filled with a variety of flavors, such as custard, chocolate, or fruit jams. These delectable pastries are enjoyed best when they are freshly made and still warm.


The origins of malasadas can be traced back to the Portuguese immigrants who came to Hawai`i in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work on the sugar plantations. They brought with them their culinary traditions, including the recipe for malasadas. Over time, malasadas became deeply intertwined with the local food culture.


Today, malasadas can be found in specialty shops, food trucks, and even at local festivals and events. Their popularity is evident in the long lines of eager customers waiting to get their hands on these sweet treats. Many local establishments have put their own twists on the classic recipe, offering unique flavors and variations that keep customers coming back for more.


One of the most beloved figures when it comes to malasadas in Hawai`i is Leonard’s Bakery. This iconic bakery in Honolulu has been serving up freshly made malasadas since 1952. Leonard’s has become a must-visit spot for both locals and tourists, who flock to the bakery for a taste of their famous, hot and sugary malasadas.


Malasadas are not just a tasty treat; they are also a reminder of the multicultural influences that have shaped the Hawaiian food scene. The combination of Portuguese heritage with the vibrant flavors of Hawai`i creates a fusion that is truly unique.


So, the next time you have a craving for something sweet in Hawai`i, make sure to seek out malasadas. Indulge in the delightful combination of fluffy pastry, irresistible fillings, and a generous coating of sugar. It’s a culinary experience that will satisfy your sweet tooth and leave you with a smile on your face.



Exploring the culinary delights of Hawai`i is a journey that takes you through a fusion of flavors, cultures, and traditions. From the staple dishes like poi and kalua pig to the mouthwatering treats like malasadas and haupia, each dish tells a story of a vibrant and diverse culinary heritage.


Hawaiian cuisine is a testament to the island’s history and the melting pot of cultures that have shaped its flavors. The dishes we’ve explored, such as lomi lomi salmon and laulau, reflect the deep connection between the land and the people, while others like spam musubi and plate lunch showcase the fusion and creativity that define the Hawaiian food scene.


Whether you’re a visitor or a seasoned local, embracing the flavors of Hawai`i is an essential part of immersing yourself in its culture. The dishes we’ve covered offer a glimpse into the rich culinary tapestry of the islands, inviting you to savor the unique ingredients, techniques, and flavors that make Hawai`i such a special place.


Through the power of food, you can experience the spirit of aloha and the sense of community that permeates the Hawaiian culture. From the traditional luaus to the local eateries, the act of coming together to share a meal is a celebration of friendship, family, and the simple joys of life.


So, whether you’re indulging in the smoothness of poi or savoring the flavors of poke, remember to embrace the beauty of the Hawaiian cuisine. Let each dish transport you to the shores of the islands, immersing you in the vibrant culture and leaving you with unforgettable memories.


As you continue your culinary adventures throughout Hawai`i, be open to trying new flavors, embracing the diverse influences, and appreciating the dedication and craftsmanship that goes into each dish. And above all, enjoy the journey of discovering the vast and delectable world of Hawaiian cuisine.