Hawaiian Cuisine as a Melting Pot of Ingredients and Cultures

May 15, 2014 by


The food of Hawaii reflects the islands’ geography, history, and the traditional beliefs of its inhabitants. Time-honored culinary practices of the first Polynesian settlers have been melding with gastronomic sensibilities of American, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and other immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries. Plantation workers and later surfers wanted a nutritional lunch as their main meal of the day, necessitating the invention of the now-ubiquitous “lunch plate”, while American servicemen brought Spam, which eventually became a signature food of Hawaii.


Before the arrival of the more recent immigrants, Hawaiian islands were home to indigenous Polynesians, who came from the islands that now constitute French Polynesia. The first settlers, who arrived around 300-500 CE, found the uninhabited islands poor in edible species. After the original discovery, likely made by a small exploratory group of a few double canoes, a larger fleet of some 10 vessels would have brought not only people—both men and women—but also plants, seeds, and livestock. It is now believed that these early voyagers introduced close to 30 crop species to the islands, if not more (Laudan 1996, p. 216). The most important introduction was taro (Colocasia esculenta), which Hawaiians call kalo because the Hawaiian language lacks both /t/ and /r/ sounds.* As taro is native to Southeast Asia, it must have followed the expansion path of Austronesian-speaking peoples; its presence on Hawaii provides evidence for the Southeast Asian origin of Polynesians. Other staples brought by the first settlers include yams and breadfruit, coconuts and sugarcane; plantains were added by a later wave of Tahitian settlers, and sweet potatoes (distinct from yams) were brought by Polynesians returning from exploratory voyages to the shores of South America.


Of these staples, taro root, and the gruel called poi made out of it, was of primary significance. Indigenous myths described the taro plant as the original ancestor of the Hawaiian people. Poi was considered such a sacred part of daily Hawaiian life that whenever a bowl of it was uncovered at the family dinner table, the spirit of Ha-loa, ancestor of the islanders, was held to be present. Poi is produced by mashing baked or steamed taro until it becomes a highly viscous fluid, while adding water during mashing and just before eating to achieve the desired consistency. Many first-time tasters are put off by both the purple color of poi and its pasty texture, but its taste is delicate. Many Hawaiians claim that it is best enjoyed in combination with kalua pig (explained below) or lomi-lomi salmon, whose salty flavor is neutralized by the poi, making it a delectable concoction.

The Hawaiian islands offered few plant- or animal-derived foods to the initial Polynesian settlers, but marine resources were abundant and varied. Fish, shellfish, and limu, the Hawaiian term for edible algae, were plentiful. Limu in particular played an essential part in the ancient Hawaiian diet, as it was used—in combination with sea salt and mashed kukui nuts—to add flavor to otherwise bland foods such taro, sweet potato, and breadfruit. Limu is still enjoyed by modern Hawaiians but it has become increasingly difficult to find because of over-picking and pollution. On land, early Hawaiians found little more that bats, lizards, and birds, but the first settlers brought pigs, chickens, and dogs. All three were used as food by ancient Hawaiians, though today only pigs and chickens are regularly eaten. Pigs in particular were raised for religious sacrifice, with the meat offered at altars being subsequently consumed by the priests and celebrants (Brennan 2000, pp. 135–138). To this day, pork—especially in the form of tender, salty, and smoky kalua pig—remains the centerpiece of the Hawaiian feast known as the lū‘au.** The word kalua refers to a combined method of roasting and steaming in an underground oven called an imu: a pit dug into earth and lined with volcanic rocks. After a large fire dies down and the rocks are glowing hot, the embers are removed, and the foodstuffs, wrapped in leaves of the ti plant, are placed in the pit. Ginger or banana leaves go in next, and then everything is covered with wet leaves, mats, and a layer of sand.

Another pork-based traditional Hawaiian dish is lau-lau, which consists of a filling wrapped in 6-7 taro leaves, which taste much like spinach, and then bundled in one or two inedible ti leaves. Like kalua pig, lau-lau is baked in an imu. Fish-, chicken-, and even beef-filled versions are now available as well. Similar dishes found elsewhere in Polynesia include Tongan lupulu and Samoan palusami and fai’ai.

The waters around Hawaii team with hundreds of species of fish, about 30% of which are endemic to the islands. From the culinary point of view, the most important of these include Pacific blue marlin (kajiki), swordfish (shutome), varieties of grouper (hapuu), red snapper (onaga) and pink snapper (opakapaka), wahoo (ono), dolphin fish (mahimahi), and moonfish (opah). Different types of fish lend themselves to barbecuing, grilling, broiling, steaming, poaching, baking, sautéing, deep-frying, smoking, or making sashimi. But the most important fish in Hawaiian cuisine is undoubtedly tuna (Nenes 2007, p. 480). Its varieties include the skipjack tuna (aku), the albacore tuna (tombo), and the most highly prized yellowfin tuna (ahi). The latter was prized by ancient Hawaiians on long ocean voyages because it preserves well when salted and dried (Laudan 1996, pp. 265–276). Tuna can be made into another traditional dish known as poke: a raw fish salad, usually flavored with soy sauce, sesame oil, kukui nut, and seaweed. More than 100 kinds of poke are found in Hawaii. Unlike most other raw fish dishes, such as South American ceviche, Spanish boquerones en vinagre, or Polynesian ika ota, poke does not use vinegar or citrus juice to denature the fish proteins and tenderize the flesh. The selection of condiments used in poke exhibits strong Asian, especially Japanese, influences. During the 19th century, recently introduced foreign vegetables such as tomatoes and onions were added to the mixture; today, sweet Maui onions are a very common ingredient.

While salmon are not indigenous to Hawaii, a salmon-based dish called lomi-lomi salmon originated on the islands. It is typically prepared by mixing salted, diced salmon with tomatoes, crushed ice, and Maui onions (or more rarely, green onions). Usually the mixing is done by hand with a “massaging” action, which gives the dish its name: lomi-lomi in Hawaiian means “to massage”. Like kalua pig, lomi-lomi salmon is best eaten with poi. Akin to many other traditional foods, lomi-lomi salmon is imbued with ritual significance, as the ancient Hawaiians had offered the similar-looking red-fleshed kumu fish to their gods.

The first contacts with Europeans starting in the late 18th century introduced many new plant and animal species to Hawaii. Captain James Cook brought sheep, goats, European swine, and seeds for melons, pumpkins, and onions. A few decades later, Captain George Vancouver introduced cattle to the islands (Loomis 2006, p. 8). With no natural predators, the cattle multiplied so quickly that so King Kamehameha I hired an American, John Parker, to capture and domesticate the animals. When Parker butchered much of the herd, Hawaiians first encountered beef (Barnes 1999, pp. 27–28). Yet beef remains secondary to pork to this day, and is typically consumed in dried form known as pipikaula, similar to beef jerky.

Another European advisor to King Kamehameha I, the Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula Marin, called by Hawaiians “Manini”, introduced the pineapple to the islands in 1813. A couple of years later he established the first Hawaiian vineyard, although grape vines had already been brought to the islands by Captain Vancouver. The island of Maui is now home to Tedeschi Winery, which makes unique pineapple wines, which range from dry to sweet. Marin, a true jack-of-all-trades, was also the first person on Hawaii to brew beer, plant coffee, and experiment with growing oranges, limes, beans, cabbages, potatoes, peaches, melons, corn (maize), and lettuce.

The nineteenth century saw a growth of pineapple and sugarcane plantations, which soon came to anchor the Hawaiian economy (Nenes 2007, p. 477). As the plantations expanded, the growing labor demand was filled by immigrant workers: Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, and Portuguese. Each group brought its own ethnic foods. The Chinese immigrants, mostly from the southern Guangdong region, introduced stir-fry-cooking, sweet-and-sour sauces, and dim-sum dishes (Henderson 1994, p. 18). Rice replaced poi as the main staple, and Asian fish were imported to stock local streams (Gabaccia 2000, p. 66). Korean immigrants brought kimchi and built barbecue pits to cook marinated meats, such as bulgogi (boneless meat in a moderately-sweet garlic sauce) and galbi (short ribs cooked with a similar sauce). Other Korean favorites introduced to Hawaii include bibimbab, mixed rice with seasoned vegetables and eggs, and gochujang, a pungent fermented condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt. The Portuguese immigrants, who came from the Azores in the late 19th century (Laudan, p. 134), emphasized pork, tomatoes, and chili peppers. Instead of the traditional Hawaiian imu, the Portuguese used the forno, a form of beehive oven, used to make their traditional sweet bread known as Pão Doce and yeast donuts called malasadas (Nenes, 2007, p. 478). The Japanese, who became the largest ethnic group by the early 20th century, brought sashimi, tofu, and soy sauce; popularized tempura and noodle soups; and helped make rice the third largest crop on the islands (Laudan, 1996, p. 5). Around the turn of the 20th century, yet another group—the Puerto Ricans—started moving to Hawaii, bringing with them such foods as thick soups, casseroles, meat turnovers, and pasteles (stewed meat with vegetables, tomato sauce and spices, wrapped in masa consisting of grated green banana, green plantain, taro, and tropical pumpkins known as calabazas). The Filipinos, who first reached Hawaii in 1909, introduced the adobo style of vinegar and garlic dishes. Many of these Ilocano migrants from northern Luzon preferred  to eat sweet potatoes as the staple food. Laborers from Samoa arrived in 1919, building their above-ground earth ovens, as well as the practice of making poi from breadfruit instead of taro (Henderson, 1994, p. 18.). After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, immigrants from Southeast Asia brought such Thai and Vietnamese favorites as lemongrass, fish sauce, and galangal (Corum 2000, p. 194).


This motley group of immigrant workers would eat “leftover rice and a lot of things like canned meat or teriyaki or cold meat or maybe scrambled eggs or pickles, and almost no salad or vegetable”, says Kaui Philpotts, the former food editor of The Honolulu Advertiser and the author of several books about Hawaiian food. Thus was born the plate lunch formula: two scoops of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad (historically, a later addition, heavy on mayonnaise), and a main entrée, which can be chicken katsu of Japanese origin, American-style hamburger steak or beef stew, Philippine pork adobo, Portuguese sausage, Korean-style short ribs (pictured on the left), or the traditional Hawaiian kalua pig. Some scholars, such as University of Hawaii professor Jon Okamura, think that Hawaiian plate lunch reflects the Japanese bento tradition, but like much of everything else in Hawaiian cuisine it has become a melting pot of multiple ethnic influences. One way or another, the plate lunch survived the demise of large plantations manned by immigrant workers and continued to be served by lunch wagons to construction workers and day laborers. Food trucks such as Kinaole Grill Food Truck in Kihei, Maui now serve the dish to local businessmen, tourists, and surfers alike. Those who want to try a plate lunch without going to Hawaii can do so at the mainland restaurant chain, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. A specific form of plate lunch, whose exact place of origin is disputed, is Loco-Moco, said to cure the hunger even of most active surfers. In addition to steamed white rice and a hamburger patty topped with gravy, it also features a fried egg or two on top.


No discussion of Hawaiian cuisine can be complete without mentioning the islanders’ love affair with Spam, canned pork meat product made by the Hormel company. Hawaiians are the second largest consumers of Spam in the world, right behind Guam; in 2005, Hawaiians consumed more than five million cans of the tinned meat (Adams 2006, pp. 58–59). Originally brought to Hawaii by American servicemen in their rations, Spam became an important source of protein for the locals when fishing around the islands was prohibited during World War II. Spam is typically fried and served with rice. At breakfast, it serves as the meat of choice to complement fried eggs. More creative uses of Spam, in the time-honored Hawaiian tradition, involve wrapping in ti leaves and roasting, stir-frying with cabbage, or deep-frying. Spam is also added to Asian ingredients and dishes, such as saimin noodles (Chinese in origin, these noodles are thinner than their Japanese ramen cousins ), fried rice, and mashed tofu. A sushi-like Spam musubi, a slice of fried Spam on a lump of rice wrapped with a strip of nori, became a popular snack in Hawaii in the 1980s. A more all-American route can be taken by adding Spam to mac-and-cheese or to sandwiches with mayonnaise. Perhaps the oddest Spam recipe I have encountered involves baking it with guava jelly. And if this does not spell dessert for you, try a more conventional Hawaiian dessert called haupia. The best way to describe it is “coconut Jello”: heated sweetened coconut milk is thickened by ground arrowroot, cornstarch, or in the least traditional recipes by unflavored gelatin; the chilled mixture is then cubed for serving.


* The historical *t sound is preserved in Hawaiian mostly before /i/ and has been replaced by [k] elsewhere: hence, the number ‘seven’ in Hawaiian is hiku, but it is pronounced with a [t] as the second consonant in numerous Austronesian languages such as Samoan, Rarotongan, Tuvalu, Rapanui, Maori, Tongan, Fijian, and even in Malagasy. Similarly, the word for ‘face’ in Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, Maori and Fijian is mata, but in Hawaiian it is pronounced maka. Like many of its Austronesian cousins, Hawaiian has an /l/ sound but no /r/ sound; hence, the number ‘two’ in Hawaiian is lua (compare with Rarotongan, Rapanui, and Maori rua) and the number ‘five’ is lima (compare with Rarotongan, Rapanui, and Maori rima).


** Historically, such feasts were known as ‘aha‘aina; the modern name lū‘au, was not used until 1856. The name lū‘au comes from the name of a food served at a ‘aha‘aina—young taro tops baked with coconut milk and chicken or octopus.



Adams, Wanda A. 2006. The Island Plate: 150 Years of Recipes and Food Lore from the Honolulu Advertiser.

Barnes, Phil. 1999. A Concise History of the Hawaiian Islands.

Brennan, Jennifer. 2000. Tradewinds & Coconuts: A Reminiscence & Recipes from the Pacific Islands.

Corum, Ann Kondo. 2000. Ethnic Foods of Hawaii.

Gabaccia, Donna R. 2000. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans.

Henderson, Janice W. 1994. The New Cuisine of Hawaii: Recipes from the Twelve Celebrated Chefs of Hawaii Regional Cuisine.

Laudan, Rachel. 1996. The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage.

Loomis, Ilima. 2006. Rough Riders: Hawaii’s Paniolo and Their Stories.

Nenes, Micheal F. 2007. “Cuisine of Hawaii”, American Regional Cuisine.


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