If you don’t come back from Hawai‘i with a suitcase stuffed with macadamia nuts, pineapples, and a plastic lei or seven, did you even go? Instagram stories from the beach dissipate at 24 hours, after all.
It hardly seems possible to return home without at least a few tchotchkes, and, in fact, local culture demands it. The Japanese tradition of omiyage — a gift brought back from a trip for friends, family, or even co-workers — is fully integrated into the state’s culture, where it frequently takes the form of local food or produce. When locals visit other islands, for instance, they often fly home with coolers stuffed with comfort foods that are otherwise hard to come by at home: pork laulau smoked at a mom-and-pop roadside stand on the Big Island; perfectly seasoned tako (octopus) poke found at a particular Honolulu fish market; or a dozen original glazed doughnuts from the Krispy Kreme on Maui (the sole location in Hawai‘i, making its doughnuts a prized commodity).
Because the custom is so ubiquitous, even visitors often get caught up in the spirit of it; fortunately, there’s an abundance of ready-to-travel local specialties on every island that embody their unique character, from Maui’s farm-to-table chic to O‘ahu’s eclectic, kinetic vibes.
However, while it may be tempting to hoard avocados from Kona (so cheap!) or liliko‘i (passionfruit) from Maui (so abundant and tangy!) the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a different idea about appropriate souvenirs: Hawai‘i’s remote location and tropical climate give it a singular ecology, so only a small range of agricultural products are allowed to be brought back to the mainland to limit the potential introduction of invasive species. Pineapples and coconuts, okay; sugarcane and sweet potatoes, not so much. Generally speaking, unless a fresh fruit or vegetable has been sealed in USDA-approved packaging, it’s delicious contraband.
The hallmark of modern Hawai‘i is its deep integration and intense hybridization of the traditions and cuisines of the immigrants from Japan, China, Portugal, the Philippines and many other countries who arrived to work on the plantations in the prior centuries with the native culture. O‘ahu’s best omiyage — tucked in bake shops amid the skyrises and shopping malls — naturally highlight these local favorites.
When Leonard’s Bakery (933 Kapahulu Avenue) opened a few blocks back from the Waikīkī strip in 1952, for instance, it helped to popularize malassadas, the Portuguese holeless doughnuts that are now a Hawai‘i staple treat. You can’t go wrong with Leonard’s doughy, sugar-sprayed original, but be sure to also grab the haupia (coconut cream)-stuffed malassadas, along with whatever other flavors might be available (think cinnamon sugar or pineapple). (From 5:30 a.m. daily; $1.15 for basic flavors or $1.50 for stuffed).
While the Japanese omiyage tradition strongly emphasizes packaging — imagine the columns of fine gift boxes in Japanese department stores, or elaborately wrapped gift fruits — it’s typically not that big of a deal in the Hawaiian version. You wouldn’t know that at Libby Manapua Shop (410 Kalihi Street); locals regularly play “I spy” at airport departure gates, scanning for its millennial-pink boxes alongside happy customers. Inside are doughy manapua (Chinese steamed buns), hand-stuffed with char siu pork or black sugar. You can get your own box (from $1.80 per bun).
Hawai‘i Island, colloquially known as the Big Island, is the breadbasket of the state: Its expansive landscape — larger than all of the other islands combined — has a slice of 10 of the 14 climate zones on Earth, nurturing everything from prized Hawai‘i Island beef (a $46 million industry) to world-renowned Kona coffee to the first bean-to-bar chocolate operation totally contained within the United States. All remarkable, but they’re nothing like Hawaiian vanilla.
The northerly seaside slopes of Hamakua region are one of just four global regions where the finicky orchid grows on a commercial scale, and it’s the home of the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. Founded by Jim Reddekopp in 1998, the company works at every level of vanilla production, from hand pollinating its orchids to making packaged products like vanilla lotions, vanilla-infused garam masala spice, and vanilla buttermilk pancake and waffle mix — all available in its gift shop and café (43-2007 Pa‘auilo Mauka Road, Pa‘auilo). The company’s vanilla extract, sold in 2-ounce vials for $18, might as well be liquid gold; stuff your carry-on with as many as you think you can get by the TSA.
For a gift that can be eaten straight away, head to Hilo, where Two Ladies Kitchen turns out spectacular assortments of gooey mochi (274 Kīlauea Ave.; 20 pieces for $19.80). The shop’s most vital offerings are stuffed with seasonal fruit, like peaches during high summer; its strawberry mochi, which features fresh strawberries wrapped in sweet azuki bean paste and mochi, are so popular as omiyage that pre-ordering is recommended. Unfortunately, mochi containing fresh fruit can’t be transported back to the mainland, so you’ll need to order a more travel-friendly assortment to go, like a colorful bouquet of coconut, brownie, white chocolate and plum flower.
Maui is like Provence in more ways than one: Its high-elevation farms share a similar climate, capable of nurturing wine grapes and lavender, and they seamlessly blend into the island’s endless luxury resorts, producing an air of opulence grounded by a deep local farming culture. But head to Surfing Goat Dairy in Kula (3651 Omaopio Road), where procuring this unique omiyage is half the fun; you can watch baby goats frolic in a playground decorated with spent surfboards, take a goat milking lesson, or linger over a huge cheese plate festooned with everything from plain chevre to the mango supreme, a spreadable crowd-pleaser that includes Maui mangoes and mango chutney. (Also, did I mention baby goats?) Afterwards, fill up a box with goat cheese chocolate truffles that come in flavors like liliko‘i and Hawaiian chili pepper ($15 for 6).
When it’s time to depart the island’s main airport in Kahului, skip the Krispy Kreme (or don’t) and stop by Mike’s Mini Mart (343 Hanamau Street, Unit A) for a bag of manjookies, a unique, flaky hand-rolled concoction that mashes up Japanese manju pastries and cookies. They’re available with sweet fillings like sweet potato, lima bean, or pineapple-passionfruit (from $7.50 for 5).
Kaua‘i offers the quiet, idyllic jungle retreat most people dream about for their Hawai‘i vacation, which manifests in made-by-hand traditional treats, especially those made from kalo (taro). Islanders often go out of their way to snatch up bricks of kūlolo here, a gooey treat made from coconut milk, sugar and taro, from Kapa‘a Poi Factory. The company, founded in 1947, is the oldest factory that still makes it, using a generations-old family recipe. They’re easy to find at many markets, including the Foodland in Princeville or Waipouli or Ishihara Market in Waimea.
Off the beaten path in gallery-filled Hanapēpē, Taro Ko Chips Factory occupies a ramshackle green cottage with a corrugated metal roof (3940 Hanapēpē Road). There’s isn’t much signage, but the place is no secret: Its thin, salty chips, made from taro or sweet potato, have been popular omiyage for decades (from $5 a bag). Bring cash, and, if they have them in stock, snatch up their li hing mui powder-coated crisps. (Li hing mui, salty-sour dried plums originally from China, comes in powder form and is sprinkled on all kinds of local products.)
For friends who are dedicated home cooks, pick up ‘alaea pa‘akai (red Hawaiian sea salt); its red hue is courtesy of the area’s volcanic, iron-rich red clay. Various brands, including Kaua‘i company Salty Wahine, sell packets large and small in grocery stores and farmers markets throughout the Garden Isle.
Meghan Miner Murray is a freelance travel writer based on Hawai‘i Island and is no stranger to island hopping only to return home with a carry-on filled with food.