This is a question we get asked all of the time and to tell the truth when I travel I ask the same question. However, in Hawaii if you are asking about local food, you are actually asking about five types of local food!
When the islands were first settled during the pre-contact era which was 300 AD to 1778, the Polynesian voyagers brought back animals and what are called “canoe plants” to settle this new land. To the native Hawaiians local food is of course our delicious fresh fish as well as many of the plants that came over such as Taro, Coconuts, Sugarcane, and Sweet Potatoes. Along with their earth ovens called Imus (you can see them unearth the roasted pig at some of our luaus), they had a wonderful variety of cooked meat, vegetables and fruit.
After first contact in 1778, the European and American food arrived along with whalers and missionaries who also introduced their types of food as well. New England food was introduced by the missionaries and the whalers brought salted fish with them. This evolved into one of the Hawaiian’s favorite side dishes Lomi Lomi Salmon (Salmon, tomatoes and onions). We are so glad that it did!
As the pineapple and sugarcane plantations grew, the Hawaiians needed help with these huge plantations. This is when so many of our Asian neighbors came to work the field. Along with them came another new idea to the food of Hawaii as China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Portugal workers came along with their recipes. These foods influenced the region from 1850 to 1930. The Chinese gave us our Manapuas, the Portuguese gave us our sweet bread and malasadas (can’t go to a fair without having these delicious type donuts), and the Japanese introduced the Hawaiians to the Bento Box. Adding to these the European and American tastes, Hawaii developed a “local” food from all of them. The locals began eating The Plate Lunch (chicken/beef/pork with rice and potato/mac salad), Spam Musubi (need to try one for breakfast – delicious), and of course the enormous breakfast plate of Loco Moco (rice with a hamburger on top, with an egg on top of that with brown gravy).
In 1992, Chefs decided to start cooking with ingredients only grown in Hawaii which became a new style of Hawaiian cooking blending in all of these different cultural foods together. A new Hawaiian cuisine was born!
How do we get the food that the locals eat? You need to leave the resort atmosphere of shaved ice, smoothies and TSA approved pineapple packs and begin a journey that is much further from the mainland then the 3000 miles. You will go into this melting pot of flavors from around the world and you won’t want to come back!
Prior to that contact period, the Hawaiian settlers ate Poi (what they make fun of on TV) which is made from the Taro Root and very nutritious. Go ahead and put some sugar into it if you must, but definitely try it. At the luau it goes best with the salty pork and eliminates some of the salty taste. They did also eat Kalua Pork (cooked in an underground) and most of us continue to eat it often as it is “ono” – delicious! You also must try our raw fish salads called Poke. You can get it many different ways such as with spices or soy sauce. It is so fresh, “brok da mout” (broke the mouth – absolutely delicious).
When the immigration started, more fantastic foods were produced. You need to try the ensaymada (butter topped pastry from the Philippines) and the butter mochi (Japanese made from sweet rice flour). Most of all you need to try a plate lunch. Be careful ordering too many of these as you get “choke” food (huge amount) and definitely can share them.
I cannot go into all the local great food but I have borrowed a list of what people say are the top ten foods you need to try when in Hawaii that separate Hawaii from the mainlands. So brah, if you want to be known for plenny akamai you go grind da kine. But don’t stay momona – we have plenty of outside activities for you! (Brother – if you want to be know for plenty of smarts go eat this food. But don’t stay fat..) And with that – I’m pau!
Top Ten Local Foods to Try in Maui
Poke (any grocery store)
Manapua (grocery stores, Minute Stop)
Spam Musabi (some ABC Stores, Whaler’s General Stores)
Shaved Ice with Ice Cream on the bottom (everywhere)
Fish Tacos (Coconuts Cafe, Taquiera Cruz)
Saimin (noodle shops)
Huli Huli Chicken (all over the island cooking on rotating spits)
Loco moco (Kihei Cafe)
Malasadas (Homemaid Bakery)
Plate Lunch (Da Kitchen).