I was lucky enough to live in Hawaii for a couple months while I helped a branch of my company start up there. I fell in love with the native culture and food, and I started to cook some Hawaiian dishes at home for my family. I was surprised at how many people don’t know what delicious food Hawaii has to offer. So here’s what Hawaiians really eat, and no, it’s not pineapple pizza. These Hawaiian cooking favorites showcase the islands’ creative spirit and eclectic culture.
Mainlanders probably don’t associate the vibrant islands of Hawaii with the decidedly un-glamorous canned meat. But Hawaiians consume approximately 5 million pounds of Spam a year–about six cans per person. In Honolulu, the Waikiki Spam Jam draws thousands of locals out to celebrate the salty pork/ham concoction.
Hawaiian Spam-mania hearkens back to World War II, when the U.S. military restricted fishing vessels in Hawaii because many of them were owned by the Japanese. With the fishermen out of work, Hawaiians survived on government-ordained food rations, including Spam. Spam stir fry, spam fried rice, and spam musubi are popular to this day.
It’s common for a Hawaiian luau to end on a sweet note with haupia(HOW-pee-ah), a pudding-like dessert food. The first haupia was made by heating up coconut milk and thickening it with ground arrowroot. Today, sugar, cornstarch, and canned coconut milk are used to create haupia. Though it’s considered a pudding, its consistency is similar to gelatin and French blancmange. In the 1940s, Hawaiians began putting haupia on wedding cakes, taking advantage of its white color and creamy coconut taste.
Forget avocado toast and bubble tea–poke(POH-keh) is the Hawaiian seafood dish that’s taking the West Coast by storm. The world itself means “to slice”; poke began as a snack Hawaiian fishermen made from the cutoffs of their daily catch. Cooks chop oily raw tuna(ahi) into precise cubes and season it with sundried sea salt, seaweed, kukui nuts, and algae.
Many exotic fruits flourish in Hawaii’s volcanic soil, and the yellow passionfruit or lilikoi is among the most popular. Hawaiians acknowledge that the more brown and wrinkled the fruit’s skin, the more explosive its flavor. Just one half cup of lilikoi satisfies half of your daily recommended Vitamin A intake, and a quarter of your recommended Vitamin C. Hawaiian cooks love to innovate with the powerfully sweet and tangy fruit. Lilikoi juices, jams, butters, and desserts abound.
The taro plant, or kalo, produces massive heart-shaped leaves that can grow up to 5 feet long. It has a bulbous, starchy underground stem. Poi, an iconic Hawaiian dish, is made by steaming and crushing the stem into a mineral-rich paste. The stem is also used to make taro chips and burgers. To Hawaiians, who have skillfully cultivated the plant for centuries, the taro is much more than an ingredient. In the Native Hawaiian creation story, the first Hawaiians are formed from the taro plant.
In the late 1800s, Hawaiian plantation workers refueled with compact, carb-heavy lunches packed in Japanese bento boxes. A typical lunch consisted of meat, macaroni, and two scoops of leftover rice. In the 1930s, traveling lunch wagons replicated this meal on compartmentalized plates; since then, the three-part “plate lunch” has been a staple at Hawaiian restaurants and drive-ins. Meat may be the star of the meal, but a Hawaiian dinner is incomplete without steamed white rice cooked in a rice cooker.
Tender, juicy kalua pork is the centerpiece of a traditional Hawaiian luau. The word kalua refers to the cooking method, which has become a hit among tourists. First the cooks build the imu(underground oven): they dig a large pit, light a hardwood fire within it, and cover the fire with stones. When the stones are sufficiently hot, they spread them out over the coals and carpet them with flexible banana trees and glossy ti leaves. The salted pork is placed on top. People imitate the kalua effect by cooking shoulder blade roast in a slow cooker with Hawaiian sea salt.