Hawaii Culinary Styles
The culinary styles found on the islands of Hawaii are a delicious expression of the the region’s rich and diverse culture and heritage, as well as a reflection of its exotic tropical location. Throughout history, immigrants have brought with them to the island their own recipes, ingredients, and methods of food preparation, some of which have fused together to create unique fare with a taste all its own.
The cooks of Hawaii pride themselves on creating culinary masterpieces prepared with only the freshest ingredients, most of which are found locally, either growing amongst the islands’ lush vegetation or caught from the surrounding ocean waters. The farmers and fishermen of the islands provide harvests of fresh seafoods like salmon, seaweed, and lobster, as well as tropical fruits and vegetables including plump tomatoes, savory herbs, lettuces, coconuts, pineapples, papaya and many more. Hawaiians also use a number of meats in their food preparation, particularly lamb, pork, and beef. The rich volcanic soils and well-stocked waters make the islands a cornucopia of delicious foods and fresh ingredients.
Hawaiian cuisine embodies a variety of world cultures, and its regional foods include fusions of Euro-Asian, Pacific Rim, Indo-Pacific, and Euro-Pacific fare.
Sapodilla, soursop, and rambutan are just a few of the many exotic fruits introduced to the Aloha Islands from Southeast Asia. Other dishes that have been influenced by Asian cultures include fresh fruit sauces made with mango, litchi, papaya, pineapple, guava fruits; sake sauces; ginger-sesame-wasabi flavorings; fish and tamarind sauces; and an assortment of seasoning and spices. Here are some other dishes and ingredients that have been borrowed from the Asian culture and added to the cuisine of Hawaii:
- Five-spice powder – used in Chinese cuisine, particular Cantonese food, which has sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty flavors; it is made up of powdered cassia buds, powdered star anise and anise seed, ginger root, and ground cloves, cinnamon
- Char siu – Chinese barbecued, or fork roasted pork
- Wasabi – Japanese horseradish
- Tofu – Chinese bean curd
- Sushi – Japanese food made of vinegared rice mixed with other toppings or fillings, which are most commonly seafood
- Bagoong Terong – originated in the Philippines, and is a common ingredient made of fermented salted bonnet mouth fish, and uses as a flavor enhancer
- Dim Sum – a Chinese delicacy, dim sum is seafood, pork hash, and vegetables in a translucent wrap, and served for breakfast and lunch
Other International Influences
Along with Asian influences, several other international cultures have contributed to the tastes of Hawaiian food. Here are a few unlikely ingredients that are very popular in the islands:
- Patis – Swedish fish sauce
- Jícama – a legume native to Central America that is cultivated for its edible taproot; the other parts are poisonous
- Spam – canned meat that tastes like ham and is often prepared in a similar manner
When the Polynesians came to the Hawaiian Islands around 600 or 700 A.D., they brought with them many types of food ingredients that were not native to the islands. As the originators of Hawaii’s culture, the Polynesians have had the most influence on the regional culinary style. Most Polynesian dishes are based on fruits and vegetables and thus naturally low in fat, a trait that characterized Hawaiian cuisine until the arrival of European settlers who brought pigs to the islands. Seafood is the staple of most meals, as the islanders relied on the ocean as their major source of sustenance. For celebratory events, Hawaiians often have big feasts called lu’aus.
Bento is a compact boxed meal served throughout the islands of Hawaii. This picnic-type meal usually includes arranged sections of rice, pickled vegetables, and fried chicken, beef, or pork. Bento is also available in vegetarian-style, made with brown-rice. This quick meal originated from Japanese immigrants who worked in the pineapple and sugarcane fields, and were available everywhere, from department stores to corner delis and supermarkets.
Plate lunches are similar to bentos in that they are a very casual meal. Plate lunches are purchased from lunch wagons, and made of fried mahimahi, “two scoops rice,” macaroni salad, and a few leaves of green, which are usually julienned cabbage. The favorite condiment used for plate lunches is a thick gravy, and to wash it all down, a canned soda on the side.
Native Desserts, Beverages, and More
Along with delicious main courses, Hawaii also has its own signature beverages and desserts.
- Kona Coffee – is a coffee grown on Mount Hualalai and Mauna Loa in the North and South Kona Districts of the Big Island; the weather patterns here are conducive for the growing of coffee, which can only be cultivated in certain climates
- Loco Moco – a traditional Hawaiian dish made of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and gravy
- Poke – Fish salad served as an appetizer
- Manapua – a doughy bread ball filled with sweetened pork or sweet beans
- Shaved Ice – similar to a snow cone, this is an island favorite, especially on very hot days; finely shaved ice is topped with tropical sweet syrups
There is so much variety when comes to dining in Hawaii that vacationers may feel overwhelmed when it comes to choosing a dish to sample during their stay.