An Introduction to Hawaiian Food

Hawaiian food - Poi, laulau, chicken longrice

Every time I'm home, I make it a point to have Hawaiian food some time during my visit, normally towards the end. I didn't really eat it too often before I moved away, but it's a staple at family parties, and since I'm never home for those nowadays, I find myself craving it where I didn't really previously.

Outside of the islands, not too many people know what real Hawaiian food is. There are several foods associated with Hawaii (pineapple, spam musubi, shave ice, loco moco), but most of them aren't actually Hawaiian. And no, the trending mainland version of poke doesn't count. Just as there's a difference between being Hawaiian and being from Hawaii, there's also a difference between Hawaiian food and the foods that we eat in Hawaii. 

By nature of having developed on an island surrounded by thousands of miles of open ocean, Hawaiian food tends to be rather simple, relying more on the natural flavors of the fresh ingredients than on spices or complicated cooking techniques. 

Young's fish market, honolulu

Anyways, for the uninitiated, here's a quick rundown of the most common Hawaiian foods.

  • Poi - As rice is to Asia, bread is to Europe, and potatoes are to the Americas, so is poi to Hawaii. It's mashed taro root (kalo) mixed with water to thin it down. Depending on how fresh it is, its flavor can range from mild to pretty sour. Though in any case, it's normally an acquired taste, and I haven't seen anyone who hasn't grown up with it really take to it. 
  • Lau Lau - Often the focal point of the meal, lau lau consists of a piece of pork and a piece of fish encased in taro leaves (lu'au) then wrapped in a ti leaf and steamed. 
  • Kalua Pig - A type of pulled pork that gets its unique smoky flavor from being cooked in an underground oven (imu). It's often served with cabbage in a dish similar to corned beef and cabbage. 
  • Lomi Salmon - Made from tomato, salmon, and onions, lomi salmon (or lomi lomi salmon) gets its name from the Hawaiian lomi lomi, "to massage," as that's how the ingredients are mixed together. Although most of the ingredients were introduced when the first Westerners arrived in the islands, lomi salmon was found to go well with traditional Hawaiian foods and is now thought of as part of Hawaiian cuisine. 
  • Poke - Although it's recently begun trending on the mainland, real Hawaiian poke looks a bit different from the colorful salad-like concoctions seen on social media. Pronounced poh-keh (not poh-key or spelled pok√©), poke means "to slice," and consists of cubed raw fish, sea salt, seaweed, and onions. Different varieties can also be seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, chili pepper, fish eggs, and wasabi. The most popular type is ahi poke (tuna) and it's generally eaten as an appetizer. 
  • Squid Luau - A combination of taro leaves, coconut milk, squid chunks, and salt, squid luau has an almost stew-like texture. 
  • Chicken Long rice - Like lomi salmon, chicken long rice is a dish that came along after foreign arrival but has been welcomed into the anthology of Hawaiian food. Its main ingredients include chicken, long rice (known elsewhere as cellophane noodles, bean threads, or glass noodles), chicken broth, ginger, and green onions.
  • Haupia - A coconut milk dessert, haupia is for some reason considered a pudding even though it's a lot stiffer and more closely resembles a gelatin thanks to the use of arrowroot as a thickener. Haupia is also used as a topping for pies (i.e. chocolate haupia pie and haupia sweet potato pie). 
hawaiian food menu

Of course there's a lot more, but these are the one's you're likely to encounter the most at almost any lu'au. At a normal family party however, you're more likely to see a few of these things interspersed with other local favorites which draw influences from all of the people of the plantation era. Alongside your poke and kalua pig you might find Korean kalbi, Chinese fried noodles, Portuguese bean soup, and Japanese chicken katsu.