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A Brief History of the Hawaiian Plate Lunch

One of the 50th state's most beloved food traditions

A typical Hawaiian plate lunch
A typical Hawaiian plate lunch
Lori Bandi

The raw Hawaiian fish dish poke is spreading to the mainland like wild fire these days, but the Aloha State's most famous native dish is arguably the Hawaiian plate lunch. If you’re not familiar with this specialty of the 50th state, you should be. If nothing else, consider it a patriotic duty: President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu and is an avowed fan of the plate lunch. (As for why it’s never showed up at White House dinners, blame healthy-eating devotee Michelle for that one.)

Here now, everything you need to know about the Hawaiian plate lunch:

What is a Hawaiian plate lunch?

A go-to meal for Hawaiians that’s both cheap and filling, it’s served at roadside stands, drive-ins, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants all over the state; think of it like a multicultural, island-influenced version of traditional Southern meat-and-three plates. It can include many different types of proteins but they are always flanked by mayonnaise-based macaroni salad and two scoops of white rice, making the Hawaiian plate lunch a serious carb-loading event.

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue

Photo: L&L Hawaiian Barbecue/Facebook

Where/when did the Hawaiian plate lunch originate?

The origins of the dish date back to the 1880s, where it began as a popular midday meal option for hungry workers on Hawaii’s booming pineapple and sugar plantations. The plantation workers would bring their lunches to work with them in bento boxes, and leftover rice was used as an inexpensive way to bulk up whatever meats were leftover from last night’s dinner. By the 1930s, new mobile meal services called lunch wagons popped up to cater to laborers and drive-ins; instead of being served on bento boxes, they were served on compartmentalized paper plates, hence the name "plate lunch." By the 1950s, the plantation era had ended, but the plate lunch was a staple at drive-ins and free-standing restaurants across the islands.

What comprises a Hawaiian plate lunch?

Hawaii is a cultural melting pot, and that’s reflected in the diverse array of dishes diners might find on their plate lunch. Many of the aforementioned plantation workers were immigrants from other countries such as Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea, and Portugal, and they all brought with them various dishes from their homelands, such as chicken or pork katsu, a Japanese dish of a thin, crispy breaded cutlet served with a sweet-and-sour red sauce; Chinese char siu-style roast pork; pork adobo, a Filipino braised dish; Portuguese sausage; and even salmon teriyaki.

Some of the most commonly seen dishes on a plate lunch are native Hawaiian dishes: loco moco (hamburger patties topped with brown gravy and a fried egg), kalua pork (a traditional luau dish of slow-cooked pork shoulder), or Spam musubi (slices of Spam on top of rice wrapped in nori), a highly portable snack that’s said to have been invented in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Rice has been a staple of the plate lunch from the beginning, and macaroni salad was added sometime later as something that would appeal to many different palates (what's not to like about mayo-drenched pasta?).

Rainbow Drive-In

[Photo: Jaywei80/Flickr]

Do I have to go to Hawaii to eat a plate lunch?

Not even close. Plenty of restaurants specializing in the Hawaiian plate lunch have popped up in the contiguous 48, including several chains. L&L, a chain of drive-ins that originated in Honolulu and is also credited with coining the term "Hawaiian barbecue," began expanding to the continental U.S. in 1999 and now has locations across several states including California, Texas, Nevada, and even New York. Oregon has its own mini-chain of Hawaiian plate lunch restaurants called Hawaiian time, and a group of independently-owned franchise restaurants called Aloha Hawaiian BBQ has stores in Texas and California. But if you happen to be in Honolulu, you might as well check out President Obama's favorite spot: the iconic Rainbow Drive-In, which has been around since 1961.