Ultimate Guide To Hawai’ian Islands Local Foods

Ultimate Guide To Hawai'ian Islands Local Foods

It dawned on me as I was writing The Essential Guide To Food Trucks Of South Maui that I mentioned many food dishes (grinds) that were truly unique to the Hawai’ian Islands.  I guess I have some explaining to do so I’ve put together this Ultimate Guide To Hawai’ian Islands Local Foods.  A primer of sorts to help you out when reading menus while visiting Maui or any of the gorgeous islands in the Hawai’ian archipelago. Where I can, I share our favorite spots to find these unique local-style Island delicacies on Maui!

Present Hawai’ian Island food culture is a melting pot of many international influences.  You’ve got Portuguese, Native Hawai’ian cuisine,  American, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Polynesian sometimes all rolled into one meal!

When you put all of these food cultures into an equation, the results are infinite and nothing less than unique and creative!

Ultimate Guide To Hawai’ian Islands Local Foods

Desserts and Sweets

Let’s start with dessert items shall we, because who doesn’t love dessert?

photo by Ululani’s Shave Ice

Shave Ice – Shave ice or Hawaiian shave ice is an ice-based dessert made by shaving a block of ice. To be correct, it’s ‘Shave Ice’ not Shaved Ice! While the product can resemble a snow cone, snow cones are made with crushed, rather than shaved, ice. Served in a cone or cone shaped cup, flavored syrups are added to the ice, which are absorbed by the ice instead of surrounding it, shave ice in Hawai’i is often flavored with local ingredients such as guava, pineapple, coconut cream, passion fruit, li hing mui (salty dried plum), lychee, kiwi fruit and mango. The toppings are very unique to Hawai’i too! Look for mochi balls, sweetened condensed milk, adzuki beans, ice cream! You won’t find toppings like shredded toasted coconut or adzuki beans on the Mainland! Our favorite Shave Ice spot is Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice located in north Kihei! (and walk next door for fresh out of the fryer Malasadas at Sugar Beach Bakeshop!)

Haupia – Haupia is a traditional coconut milk-based Hawai’ian dessert often found at luaus and other local gatherings in Hawaiʻi. Think of it as coconut finger jello. The traditional Hawaiian recipe for haupia calls for heated coconut milk to be mixed with ground pia (Polynesian arrowroot, Tacca leontopetaloides) until the mixture thickens. Due to the lack of availability of arrowroot starch, some modern recipes for haupia substitute cornstarch. Don’t worry if you fall in love with Haupia while visiting the Island, you can buy packets at the local grocery stores and take it home with you or order online too! But it’s also simple enough to make from scratch at home. Check out the how to video if you love this local-Hawai’ian yummy pudding!

Portuguese Sweet Bread – or Pao Doce, that was originally a Christmas and Easter tradition. Portuguese sweet bread is a bread made with milk, sugar and/or honey, eggs, yeast, flour and sometimes lemon peel to produce a subtly sweet lightly textured loaf or rolls. If you’ve ever found ‘King’s Hawai’ian Bread’ on the mainland you get an idea of what this yummy bakery goodie is all about.

Kulolo – Kulolo is a Hawai’ian dessert made primarily with baked or steamed grated taro corms and either with grated coconut meat or coconut milk. Considered a pudding, kulolo has a solid consistency like fudge and is often served cut into squares

Malasada – Hawaii’s favorite fried treat. A malasada is a Portuguese confection, made of egg-sized balls of yeast dough that are deep-fried in oil and coated with granulated sugar. Think Mainland donut holes on steroids. There’s an upcoming blog post that I’ll do on the divine Malasadas from the Sugar Beach Bake Shop. Suffice it to say that they are amazing – and all Malasadas are not created equally!

Cinnamon Malasada

Ice Cream Mochis from Leonard

Mochi Ice Cream – Mochi Ice Cream is bite-sized ice cream wrapped in mochi, a sweetened rice dough. Pretty much anything Mochi, not just Mochi Ice Cream is popular in Hawaii. Why not try Butter Mochi, or Mochi Balls on your Shave Ice or Mochi’s cousin Chi Chi Dango (another confection made from rice flour).


Technically speaking many of the items listed here could fall under the snack category but here are a few that are specifically – just snacks.

Crack Seed – Crack seed is a category of snacks that originated in China. It is highly popular in many regions, such as Hawaii. Crack seed are basically preserved fruits that have been cracked or split with the seed or kernel partially exposed as a flavor enhancement. The flavors are varied, ranging from extremely sweet and salty to sour flavors. Flavors can include rock salt plum, li hing mui, honey mango, licorice peach, or any kind of combination of fruits, flavors and type of preservatives used. What originally was a preserved fruit has become a favorite snack in Hawaii and a sample of a cultural food.

Li Hing Mui – Basically a salted, dried plum but also a flavoring. You can find variations such as seedless, shredded, sweet, sweet-sour, red, white etc. Eaten as a snack , Li Hing for short, is a a ‘crack seed’.  But the flavoring – which is ground up plum skin mixed with various other flavors and red color – is sprinkled on fresh fruit, added to tropical drinks, shave ice, you name it. An acquired taste for most and the ingredients of present day Li Hing Mui don’t exactly convey as ‘health food’ (think red and yellow food dye with aspartame)

swap meet

Taro Chips – One of my favorite snacks (and I like to start my trip to Maui eating them on the plane, Hawaiian Airlines currently offers them on their snack menu.) The Hawaiian Chip Co. makes (in my opinion) the best taro chips. They are not overly salted like ones from another major chip company. They’re just perfect for snacking on the beach! I love their starchy goodness and rarely do I not eat an entire bag.

Have you gone into a sugar coma yet?  Mouth puckering from the thought of  sour pickled plums? Yea, me too. Let’s move on to some main dishes shall we.

And speaking of Taro, let’s talk about…

Poi – I recall stories from my Tutu (grandmother) of my mom eating fresh poi as a baby during the years they lived on Oahu. I’ve eaten poi several times, but it’s been a while. Note to self; eat poi again on next trip to Maui!  According to Wikipedia (and I use their reference to make sure I get it right)

Poi is a Hawaiian word for the primary Polynesian staple food made from the underground plant stem or corm of the taro plant (known in Hawaiian as kalo). It is a traditional part of Native Hawaiian cuisine.

Poi is produced by mashing the cooked corm (baked or steamed) until it is a highly viscous fluid. Water is added during mashing and again just before eating to achieve the desired consistency, which can range from liquid to dough-like. As such, poi can be known as “one-finger,” “two-finger,” or “three-finger” poi depending on the consistency, alluding to how many fingers are required to scoop it up in order to eat it (the thicker the poi, the fewer fingers required to scoop a sufficient mouthful). Poi can be eaten immediately when fresh and sweet, or left a bit longer to ferment.

For me, poi was a bit like the kindergarden paste of my childhood in texture, not that I ate paste as a kid, has a mild flavor and would be a staple that I imagine is like growing up with hot oatmeal for breakfast.

poi @ ono hawaiian foods

Main Dishes

Loco Moco – This is some kind of meal and how it came to be is a bit of a mystery to me as the combination is not one I’d ever come up with (the history of this local and widely polular dish is known and is said to have come from Lincoln Grill in Hilo).  Imagine this, a plate of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, then smothered in gravy/sauce and finished off with an over-easy fried egg.  There are of course variants to this dish but generally speaking these are the ‘bones’ of it.

Hawaii: Loco Moco

Manapua – Manapua is a Cantonese barbecue-pork-filled bun (Cha siu bao).  In Hawai’i, Manapua’s  name is a shortening of the Hawai’ian mea ʻono puaʻa, meaning, “delicious pork thing.”  This Dim Sum item consists of a white bun with a dark pink-colored diced pork filling. Manapua has come to mean any meat-filled or bean-paste-filled bun made with the same dough and includes locally created versions with hot dogs, curry chicken, kalua pig, and even ube (purple yam), which is a popular vegetarian version of the manapua. In Hawai’i, freshly prepared or prepackaged frozen manapua may be found in dedicated bakeries, restaurants, food trucks, swap meet vendors and chain convenience stores. Which side of the fence you reside on , steamed or baked will provide you with endless debate among locals.

Oyster Sauce Chicken Manapua and passion orange drink

Mixed Plate/Plate Lunch – typical plate lunch consists of white rice, macaroni salad (more on that later), and a meat of your choosing, such as pork, lau lau (more on that later too) maybe mahi mahi, katsu chicken or teriyaki beef.  “The best plate lunches are simple, unassuming meals made in small, non-franchise, hole-in-the-wall, joints owned by local and ethnic families for generations.” says Amberloo of TripAdvisor.  Likely the best Plate Lunch nearest our condo will come from Da Kitchen, a local institution. You’ll also find Spam Musubi on their menu. Da Kitchen is about a 5 minute walk from condo door to Da Kitchen door. In fact, if you want to try many of the local foods mentioned in this post, Da Kitchen is a good place to go as they serve up so many local-style dishes. When ordering, if your server asks “toss or mac” – you’re being asked if you tossed salad or macaroni salad. Plate lunch purists want two scoops, and white rice (not brown, ‘brown rice’ might be white rice covered in shoyu). UPDATE: Da Kitchen Kihei location and their central location has closed due to COVID and the downturn in the economy.

Spam Musubi – Spam is an immensely popular item in Hawaii. Go figure. And when you look at the quintessential island-fusion fast-food item, well… you get Spam Musubi. What the heck is it you say? It’s the ultimate portable snack or lunch food on the islands and is as ubiquitous as flip flops and sunscreen here. A hunk of fried/grilled spam sits atop a block of white rice wrapped in nori in the tradition of Japanese omusubi.

Macaroni Salad – Not a fan here but if you are then you’re in the right spot if you’re in Hawai’i! This ubiquitous pasta salad, nearly always served via ice cream scoop is accompanied by a same-shaped scoop of white rice (or two) and just about every place has it on the menu.

Plate Lunch Special

Saimin – Probably the ultimate local comfort food. Saimin (rhymes with eye-bin) is Chinese in origin but has blended over the years to be truly unique to the Islands. According to Hawai’i Magazine “One of Hawai’i’s most traditional local foods, saimin is an iteration of a Chinese egg-noodle soup that was developed during the Islands’ plantation era. You can taste how the recipe has been touched by Hawai‘i history’s different immigrant groups, primarily the thin Chinese chow mein-inspired noodles wading in a Japanese dashi broth. As more migrations followed, more ingredients informally entered the mix—green onions, kamaboko, kimchi, Portuguese sausage, Spam—to create the recognizable bowls of saimin you see today. It’s become so iconic you can order it at sporting events at Aloha Stadium, even McDonald’s locations across Hawaii. Star Noodle on Maui is one of the island’s go-to saimin shops.

Hamura Saimin, Lihue

Poke – It’s not sushi, it’s poke. And it’s pronounced PO-keh! Many pronounce it like ‘Pokey’ as in ‘Do the Hokey Pokey‘ but the sure fire way to blend in while traveling in Hawai’i is to pronounce it correctly. Most often Poke is made from Ahi (yellowfin tuna), shoyu sauce (we say shoyu in Hawai’i, the mainland says ‘Soy Sauce’), onions, and any number of other flavors like sesame oil, avocado, seaweed, Sriracha and more. Our favorite Poke comes from Foodland grocery store in Kihei (you can read more about our favorite island Poke here ). If you’re not sure if you like it or not sure what flavor you love best, they will give you a free sample to try.  A close runner up is Tamura’s which is a local liquor store/deli that can be found in 4 locations on Maui with one being located on Dairy road just after you leave the Kahului Airport! Perfect stop for when you’ve just gotten off the plane and you’re starving because the airplane food was yuck!

Shoyu – As mentioned above, in Hawai’i we call soy sauce by the name ‘Shoyu ‘ and it’s as much a staple as ketchup and mustard on the mainland. So though Shoyu isn’t unique to the Islands, but what we call it is really a regional thing. Wanna sound ‘local’, don’t ask for soy sauce.Ultimate Guide To Hawai'ian Islands Local Foods

Have a favorite snack or meal that you think is quintessentially Hawai’ian and ‘Local’? Leave us a comment below and let us know your favorites!

(Please note that where I use the term Hawai’i or Hawai’ian, I’m specifically referring to the local-style associated with the Hawai’ian Islands)

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Ultimate Guide To Hawai'ian Islands Local Foods
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