As the ethnic makeup of the general population in Hawaiʻi grew over time due to the arrival of malihini (foreigners) from many different countries, the local palate shifted to reflect this increasing cultural diversity.
The foods born in Hawaiʻi—such as saimin, manapua, meat jun, and more—each tell stories that tie into the history of a culture constantly in flux over the last three centuries. With the introduction of new flavors and recipes influenced by local preferences and ingredients, cuisine in the islands has become a vibrant mix that reflects its communities’ histories and growing contact with outside influences.
Some Island Favorites
None of the ingredients in lomi salmon, a plate-lunch staple, originated in the Hawaiian Islands or anywhere in Polynesia. This simple dish, made with chopped white and green onions, roma tomatoes, and salted salmon, came about entirely as a result of the contact with the Pacific Northwest trade and early European sailors.
The onions were first introduced with the arrival of Captain Cook of England in 1778, who carried them aboard as provisions at sea. The tomatoes were soon brought shortly after by Spanish horticulturist Francisco de Paula Marin in the 1790s. The salmon found its way to Hawaiʻi after the Canadian-based Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established an operations office in Hawaiʻi. There they marketed not only their most popular goods, including timber and canned salmon, but also the promise of employment to locals.
Over the years in the early 1800s, HBC would employ several thousand Native Hawaiians up and down the North American west coast, and maintain the economic connection between the two regions. This facilitated the movement of workers and trading of goods in the islands, including the main ingredient in lomi salmon.
Lomi salmon represents centuries of culinary exchange with European and North American traders.
SPAM and Musubi
Hawaiʻi is the largest consumer of SPAM in the United States, with each person on average eating about six cans annually. That’s roughly seven million cans a year for the islands as a whole!
Found today in a variety of recipes, plate lunch stops, and even as gas station fare, the canned meat product became part of Hawaiʻi’s common cuisine in the years leading up to and during WWII. American GI troops stationed in the islands’ military bases were given provisions of SPAM and other non-perishable canned goods that required no cooking. However, SPAM was already in the islands in the years before the war, as growing international tensions led the US government to further intervene in Hawaiian affairs. American officials viewed Hawaiʻi’s deep-sea fishing industry, which was mainly owned and operated by local Japanese fisherman, as a threat to national security. As a result, they passed strict laws preventing non-citizens from getting the necessary permits for larger fishing vessels, effectively ending the careers of countless Japanese and putting a consequent strain on local food supplies. SPAM and other canned proteins, including salmon and sardines, became a reliable staple in the absence of locally caught seafood.
The most popular SPAM menu item today, besides plain SPAM and rice, is musubi. As the name suggests, this came about as a direct result of the Japanese communities in Hawaiʻi, who created an affordable, portable source of protein and rice wrapped in nori (seaweed). It is very similar to the traditional Japanese onigiri (rice ball), and a timeless favorite for many who call Hawaiʻi home both there and abroad.
The SPAM Cookbook by Ann Kondo Corum features humorously illustrated recipes and has sold over 30,000 copies to date.
Malasadas and Sweet Bread
These baked goods have their origin in Portugal, and were brought by the many plantation laborers from the Madeira and Azores regions when they arrived to work in Hawaiʻi in the late 19th century.
Because Hawaiʻi and Portugal share a similar climate and long relationship with sugar cane, sugar became a primary ingredient alongside flour and butter or lard in these treats. Today, many varieties of each can be found in the islands, usually inspired by local flavors and ingredients. One can find sweet bread in unique flavors such as taro, macadamia nut, guava, and more. Places like Punaluʻu Bake Shop on the island of Hawaiʻi or Kāneʻohe Bakery on Oʻahu have become local one-stop shops for these and all kinds of baked desserts, serving as a reminder of the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of generations of Hawaiʻi plantation families.
Malasadas, an eggy donut-like treat, are fried and typically covered in sugar — are a nod to the influence of sugar cane on the recipe in both Portugal and Hawaiʻi. Leonard’s Bakery in Honolulu is widely accepted as the center of malasada culture in the islands, and is one of the most popular stops for both locals and tourists alike.. Opened in 1952 by the grandson of two Portuguese plantation immigrants, Leonard’s is another reminder of the influence of foreign cuisines on some of the most popular food items in Hawaiʻi today.
The “Black Sand Box” is a combo pack of three different flavors of beloved sweet bread from Punaluʻu Bakery. A common place to stop for hot coffee and treats on the way to Volcanoes National Park or from South Point, this bakery also claims its title as the southernmost bakery in the United States.
Saimin and Cake Noodle
These two noodle dishes are among some of the favorite comfort foods in Hawaiʻi, both being born out of the plantation communities that immigrated to the islands. No one knows exactly who “invented” these foods, but they are found in most local Japanese and Chinese restaurants on the islands today.
With roots in both Japanese and Chinese cuisines, saimin is a hot noodle soup made with noodles slightly softer than ramen. It includes a konbu (dried seaweed) and bonito broth, kamaboko (fish cake), and typically vegetables and other garnishes that were traditionally around the kitchen. A popular warm menu item, it satisfies the appetite on a modest budget.
Cake noodle is something hard to find in Chinese restaurants anywhere outside of Hawaiʻi. The pan-fried saimin-style noodles are packed tightly into a skillet and usually topped with savory sauces, meat, and green vegetables. Though similar dishes can be found elsewhere, Hawaiʻi’s cake noodle is unique in that the outside is cooked until lightly crispy while the inside remains soft. Many eateries outside of the islands have adapted this method to create the “ramen burger bun” that is popular today.
A hearty bowl of regular saimin from the Okinawan-owned noodle shop, Palace Saimin in Kalihi, Oʻahu.
From one of the curators: Being part Japanese, saimin has a special place in my heart. My gramma would make this dish with all kinds of add-ins and garnishes on rainy days in Hilo (which were often) and it’d always hit the spot. —Lehuauakea
History of the Bento & Hawaiian Lunch Plate
The traditional Japanese bento box was in use for centuries before being brought to the Hawaiian Islands by plantation workers, the majority of whom were of Japanese, Okinawan, Chinese, and Filipino descent. In Japan, they were first used as food storage primarily for rice, but during the plantation era they evolved to serve as a convenient way to carry lunch out onto the fields.
Organized into small separate compartments, bento usually contained leftovers from the night before—rice or noodles, some kind of protein, and an assortment of fresh or pickled vegetables.
Over time, this affordable, filling, and delicious assortment of entrees developed into the “plate lunch,” one of the top choices for a quick and satisfying meal in Hawaiʻi. The basic structure of two scoops rice, one scoop macaroni salad, and your choice of protein—kal bi ribs, chicken katsu, kalua pig and cabbage, and more—is something anyone who grew up with Hawaiʻi’s cuisine will fondly remember.
Connection to Home Through Food Abroad
“...the real lasting impact my family culture had on me was the practice of expressing care through food. That sentiment has taken root in me and grown into my practice of building community around food.”—Nev Faull, Cuizon ʻOhana
For many families who have moved away from the islands, their roots in Hawaiʻi usually span at least several generations back. Some of the greatest challenges noted by those who now live away from Hawaiʻi are the homesickness and culture shock in the absence of the unique cultural mix of traditions, food, and communities that they grew up with.
One of the most accessible and enjoyable ways to keep the connection to home alive is to gather with friends, family, and familiar foods. The relationship between food, the land that provides it, and the people it feeds is integral to culture in Hawaiʻi, regardless of ethnic background. As a result, social gatherings, or pāʻina, typically feature a large spread of different comfort foods from many cuisines. With so many choices there is something for everyone, and enough for multiple servings each and leftovers to take home.
Even during the fur trade era on the Northwest coast, the Native Hawaiian workers were known by their employers and surrounding communities for their lūʻau gatherings and kanikapila (live music) held at their homes on Sundays. With a cultural history tied so closely to the celebration of food, it makes sense that this connection is still very much alive today. Sometimes, all it takes to cure the homesickness is just one bite of a familiar dish.
Cookbooks from the Cuizon Faull ʻOhana, a mixed-Filipinx family from Oʻahu now based in the Pacific Northwest. Their family descends from early sugar cane plantation workers who emigrated to Hawaiʻi from the Philippines in 1906.
With so much of the Hawaiian diaspora living in the Pacific Northwest today, numerous eateries, food trucks, and dessert pop-ups have opened due to the growing demand for familiar foods. These spots typically spread through word of mouth, though some have recently received local attention in the news for bringing fresh and unique flavors to suburbs around cities like Portland and Seattle.
A plate lunch with ʻono chicken, is arguably the most popular menu item from Grind Wit Tryz, which started as a food cart off of NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Portland. The owner, Tryz Patricio, was born and raised in ʻEwa Beach, Oʻahu, and came to Oregon to play baseball. However, he found his true calling in creating community through his cooking. He and his fiancée Candace opened the food cart together and it was an instant hit with locals from Hawaiʻi. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the couple opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant on NE Alberta in 2020.
Owner Chris Cha, with ties to Hawaiʻi’s Korean immigrants, opened his restaurant in Portland, Oregon to share the medley of flavors he grew up with. It isn’t uncommon to find “Japanese, Filipino, even Puerto Rican food” in one restaurant, he says, and his menu reflects a creative yet authentic approach to this dynamic blend of flavors. With support from the local community after pandemic closures, Cha was recently able to reopen for business at a new location in Grant Park in 2020.
Seattle Poi Company has been producing Hawaiʻi-grown, Seattle-made foods and desserts since 2017. Known for bringing traditional staples like poi and haupia to the Pacific Northwest, they provide home-grown, simple, ʻāina-based Hawaiian food to one of the largest urban Native Hawaiian populations outside of the islands.