When you visit the Hawaiian Islands, it stands to reason that you may want to try some of the local cuisine. So what are the typical Hawaiian dishes, and what’s in them?
Kalua Pork: Kalua means “to cook in an underground oven.” To make kalua pork, a fire is built in an underground pit called an “imu.” Rocks are placed inside to retain the heat and then the hole is lined with giant banana leaves. The pig is rubbed with salt and herbs and then wrapped up in ti and banana leaves along with additional rocks. The pig is then covered with wet burlap and a layer of sand or soil. The pig cooks for about 7 hours before it’s removed and shredded into the delicious dish we know and love.
Laulau: “Wrapped package.” Traditionally, laulau was created by placing a few pieces of fish and pork in the center of some luau leaves, wrapping it up, and then wrapping it again within a ti leaf. Similar to kalua pork, it would be cooked in an imu (underground oven) for a few hours. Today, laulau can be made with either pork, beef, chicken or fish and is wrapped in taro leaves and steamed on a stove.
Huli-Huli Chicken: Huli-huli is a Hawaiian word meaning “end-over-end”, or rotisserie. This is Hawaii’s version of BBQ chicken. The sauce is typically made with brown sugar cane, soy sauce and fresh ginger.
Chicken Long Rice: This is actually based on a Chinese dish. It’s essentially long slippery rice noodles with chicken broth, chicken, ginger and green onion – sort of like Hawaiian chicken noodle soup. Be warned, the noodles do not look particularly appetizing when you first see them because they’re almost completely clear, but they’re quite tasty.
Lomi-Lomi Salmon: A very popular side dish. Fresh tomato and salmon salad with onions and occasionally red chili pepper flakes. It is always served cold. Lomi lomi means “to massage” in Hawaiian. To make this dish, you must massage the salmon with the other ingredients to blend everything together.
Poi – Mashed taro root. Taro was a major staple of the Hawaiian diet and served as a starch. Poi has a very smooth consistency, comparable to homemade pudding. It is a light purple in color and doesn’t have much of a flavor on its own, so you will usually have the option of adding sugar to it.
Poke – A delicious appetizer of seasoned raw fish. Originally, kukui nut, sea salt and sea wood were the only seasonings. Nowadays soy sauce, scallions and chili peppers are commonly added.
As the years have gone by, Hawaii has become a melting pot of various cuisine styles, with Asia and the other Polynesian islands being heavy influencers. You may frequently encounter dishes such as spam musubi, loco mocos, plate lunches, saimin, manapua, kalbi and pipikaula, just to name a few. Try them all! They may not have been on the menu in old Hawaii, but they’ve certainly grown to be part of the culture today.
As with any new culinary experience, keep an open mind when trying “local kine” grinds. The ancient Hawaiians didn’t have access to the variety of spices available today, so don’t expect a gourmet meal (although we would argue that some of those so-called gourmet dishes can’t hold a candle to a tasty plate of kalua pig). If you want to try the delicious food of our culture all in one place, consider attending a luau. We’ll go into more detail on those later…