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A Cheat Sheet to Food in Hawai‘i

Not every dish invented in Hawai‘i is Hawaiian food

The spread at Helena’s
Meghan McCarron

Hawai‘i’s most iconic dish is the plate lunch: a single paper plate — or Styrofoam clamshell — loaded up with a protein, like shoyu chicken or fried mahimahi, a couple of scoops of rice, and a mound of macaroni salad, along with other, wildly varying sides, from kimchi to chow fun, depending on the restaurant. It’s the go-to option in Hawai‘i for a fast bite or a picnic or an all-around salve. It’s also not Hawaiian.

In fact, most of what mainland America calls “Hawaiian,” food or otherwise, isn’t Hawaiian. Until it was annexed by the United States in 1898 — an action considered illegal by the growing Hawai‘i sovereignty movement — the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was an independent country, and “Hawaiian” specifically refers to the descendants of the islands’ original Polynesian inhabitants and their culture. Put another way, unlike the thousands of New Yorkers who were born in Ohio, moving to Hawai‘i from another state doesn’t make you Hawaiian; if you’re not of Hawaiian descent, even being born there doesn’t make you Hawaiian, it makes you a kama‘āina.

The complications of this and other distinctions are no small part of why, for such an obsessed-over place, with more than 8.9 million visitors per year, Hawai‘i’s extraordinarily deep culinary culture — the product of more than two centuries of colonialism, migration, and fusion — is still largely misunderstood and misrepresented. For instance, imagine an ideal day of eating in Hawai‘i: malassadas for breakfast, a plate lunch of chicken katsu, then Spam musubi for a snack, followed by pastele stew for dinner. This amalgam of dishes, which came to the islands along with the people brought here from Japan, China, Portugal, and other countries to work on sugar plantations, have evolved into a canon of staples that we call “local food” or Hawai‘i food, as opposed to Hawaiian food, which is also known as “native.”

It can be a lot to take in, but that said, here are some of the basics that will make you as fluent in laulau and loco moco as you are on the difference between Spam and ham.

Actual Hawaiian Food

Humans arrived on the islands about 1,000 years ago. Those first Polynesians were skilled navigators who stocked their sailing canoes with a pantry starter kit — pigs, chickens, and dogs, along with the cuttings, tubers, and plants they needed to grow taro, sweet potato, breadfruit, bananas, coconuts and sugarcane. Those ingredients became part of an agricultural land-management system based on the ahupua‘a, a pie-shaped slice of land and ocean that yielded everything the ali‘i (chief) and his people needed, from fish to freshwater. At the heart of this cuisine was the staple poi — taro mashed with a carved lava rock, then thinned with water — along with sweet potato, breadfruit, all kinds of seaweed, fruit, and some fish, eaten raw, dried, or steamed.

Now, when we speak of Hawaiian food, we refer to just a handful of dishes made by a handful of restaurants and home cooks, altered by modern tastes and historical forces but still recognizably Hawaiian. Meat in the form of kālua pig, traditionally steamed in an imu, an underground pit filled with lava-hot rocks — now more often cooked in an oven with Liquid Smoke — and laulau (pork, chicken or fish steamed in spinach-like taro leaves), once eaten only for special occasions, are now the centerpiece; poi has gone from main dish to a side into which you dip kālua pig to cut the fat.

Pipikaula at Helena’s
Bill Addison

Today, a Hawaiian feast is defined by piling up all the sides together — the Chinese-influenced soupy chicken long rice, color-coordinated lomi salmon, chewy batons of pipikaula, a square of haupia (like a creamy coconut Jell-O) and, of course, a scoop of white Japanese rice. This hybridized Hawaiian fare isn’t in danger of extinction — commercially made poi, laulau, and kālua pig are regular features in supermarkets — but it is getting harder to find in a dining room as the owners of Hawaiian restaurants age and shut their doors. In August 2017, for instance, the iconic Ono Hawaiian Foods served its last bowl of squid lū‘au (a dark-green taro-leaf stew sweetened with coconut milk and dotted with rings of calamari), because its owners were ready to retire.

A few places have turned over to a new generation, fortunately: Young’s Fish Market, opened in 1951 as, well, a fish market, and since expanded to prepared Hawaiian food, now sells poke bowls and sea asparagus salad along with kālua pig plates. Yama’s Fish Market has great laulau plates, but is now also known for its killer desserts, like haupia layered with sweet potato puree atop a shortbread crust. Meanwhile, new interest in traditional foodways has revived taro cultivation and the traditional production of poi and pa‘i ‘ai (pounded taro before water is added), which is sold throughout the islands by companies like Mana Ai, Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi, and even Whole Foods.

Serving imu-cooked kālua pig:

  • Haili’s Hawaiian Foods | 760 Palani Avenue, Honolulu | (808) 735-8019
  • Helena’s Hawaiian Food | 1240 N. School Street, Honolulu | (808) 845-8044 |

Serving oven-cooked kālua pig:

Old-School Local Food

Open since 1966, Meg’s Drive-In, an old-school fast-food joint in the commercial neighborhood of Kalihi, serves a classic plate-lunch menu. Here, the offerings encompass an especially wide array of local specialities, which mash up traditional Americana and a wealth of immigrant influences: $2 burgers, mochiko chicken, grilled mahimahi, chili spaghetti (it’s what it sounds like), liver with bacon and onions, stuffed cabbage, sweet and sour pork, pork adobo, loco moco (a surfer-fueling carb mountain of rice, hamburger patty and fried egg topped with brown gravy) and a Hawaiian plate that includes a classic potato-and-carrot-studded beef stew that would be at home at a diner in Wyoming. This bewildering, vast array of options and culinary influences isn’t random so much as it is the history of labor in Hawai‘i, told through its food.

In 1852, the first group of contract laborers arrived from China to work on sugarcane plantations. When their five-year contracts were up, they immediately moved into towns, a cycle that continued until the white establishment grew paranoid that its imported labor was becoming a menace; it eventually turned to an ever-shifting mix of Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, Puerto Rican, and Filipino workers instead. The old romantic chestnut goes that when these workers took a break in the fields, they all shared their lunches with each other, giving everyone a taste for new cuisines.

Saimin at Sekiya in Honolulu
Hillary Dixler Canavan

But food writer and historian Wanda Adams points out in The Island Plate: 150 Years of Recipes and Food Lore from The Honolulu Advertiser that plantation brass kept work crews separated by ethnicity; the different groups, longing for a taste of home, clung tightly to their own foods. So while plantation villages likely saw some cross-pollination, it’s more probable that early food entrepreneurs, many of them Japanese, fostered Hawai‘i’s signature culinary fusion because they cooked for a multicultural clientele. It also explains the plate lunch — which is, in effect, a deconstructed bento box.

While the dominant influence on the format is Japanese — the rice is the sticky short-grain variety, and teriyaki sauce is prevalent — you can have the world in a plate lunch, or at least the parts of it that helped build Hawai‘i. Filipino lechon, Chinese char siu, Korean kalbi, Portuguese vinha d’alhos, all funnelled through a Western lens of assimilation — that’s local food.

The New Local Food

Over the last couple of decades, Hawai‘i’s best and most famous contemporary chefs have also made their names working in the vernacular of local food. The shift toward celebrating local food at the high end started with Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi, who, along with a handful of other chefs, created the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement in 1991. Before “farm to table” was a buzz term, this group preached the use of local ingredients, like fish such as ‘ōpakapaka (pink snapper), island-grown fruits such as mangoes, and island-raised beef combined with high-end execution. Wong’s signature “Da Bag” dish, for example, was a play on laulau — a puffed-up foil packet filled with kālua pig, Manila clams, spinach, and tomatoes, utilizing an en papillote technique that Wong learned when working at New York’s lauded Lutèce.

Like Wong, most of Hawai‘i’s new guard have trained at top cooking schools and worked at some of the best restaurants in the world — or, like Kevin Lee of Pai Honolulu, they are from elsewhere and have been drawn by the islands’ food scene and ingredients. The thing that binds them is the ‘āina — generally translated as “the land,” but really meaning something much deeper and intangential, the mana-emanating thing that feeds and inspires us every day.

Tin Roof’s pork belly garlic noodles
Bill Addison

More recently, Top Chef contender (and Eater Cooking in America host) Sheldon Simeon closed his restaurant Migrant in Maui’s Wailea Beach Marriott resort and opened Tin Roof 15 miles away in Kahului, fittingly a stronghold of working-class local-ness on an island filled with part-time transplanted mainland urbanites. Tin Roof is Simeon’s homage to the humble plantation houses in which many of our forebears lived. A takeout joint in a strip mall, it specializes in one-bowl dishes that Simeon calls “kau kau tins,” after the metal containers in which plantation workers transported their lunches. His take on the local Japanese fried mochiko chicken favorite is a labor-intensive operation that involves marinating thighs overnight in ginger, sake and shoyu, and frying it twice. Then he arranges the bite-size pieces of meat over rice and tops the whole thing with miso sauce, gochujang aioli, pickled daikon, shreds of nori and diced green onion. Channeling his own plantation roots, Simeon has you simultaneously getting the feels for your Japanese grandmother and your best-friend’s Korean grandmother and your last fancy dinner out.

As immigration to Hawai‘i continues, new flavors are added to the “local” mix. Chef Andrew Le of The Pig and the Lady, born on O‘ahu to first-generation Vietnamese parents, mines his Southeast Asian heritage and combines it with his CIA training to create a kampachi sashimi dish accented with fermented shrimp and banana blossom, and a pork chop glazed with black garlic char siu sauce. (Disclosure: Eater Guide to Hawai‘i consulting editor Martha Cheng started the restaurant’s first iteration as a pop-up with Le, but has no stake in his current restaurants.)

Even new arrivals like star Tokyo sushi chef transplant Keiji Nakazawa continue to find inspiration in Hawaiian and local food. The master of Edomae sushi came to Hawai‘i expressly to challenge himself by using new types of fish and other ingredients. Now he serves a Lilliputian “laulau” made with little cube of opah cheek and salmon wrapped in lū‘au leaf at his $300, 10-seat spot Sushi Sho. Chef Lee Anne Wong, a New Yorker and past Top Chef competitor who has made O‘ahu home, makes multicultural compositions in her skillet dishes such as “Breakfast Bibimbap” of bacon, Portuguese sausage, ham, kimchi, soy-mirin shiitake mushrooms and ong choy, topped with a sunnyside-up egg, atop garlic rice at her Koko Head Cafe.

And, increasingly, Hawai‘i chefs such as Ed Kenney and Mark Noguchi are becoming food activists, going beyond “cook local” boosterism to be highly involved in issues like food security. Kenney is now using not just his cooking, but his personal history, to explore cuisine through the PBS series Family Ingredients, in which he traces favorite local foods to their source. The gig has taken him to places such as Okinawa, Puerto Rico — and Tahiti, the last stop on the migration route that brought the first Polynesians to Hawai‘i. Those skilled voyagers may be surprised to see what their canoe plants have led to, but perhaps even more surprised at how they continue to influence the islands’ culinary creativity.

Lesa Griffith is a freelance food writer based in Honolulu who lives on the same street her parents did when she was born.

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