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7 Popular Hawaiian Dishes To Eat

Learn about Hawaiian cuisine with these traditional and modern dishes.

Hawaii may not be a large state, but its long trade history and plantation-style farms have supported a unique food culture. In this guide, we’ll be looking at some of my favorite foods from the islands, including what makes them unique.

Traditional Hawaiian tuna poke

Before we get into that, however, there are a few things to know.

First, most of these foods are easy to find in Hawaii, but it’s also possible to recreate them elsewhere with similar ingredients.

Hawaii doesn’t have many unique foods, mainly because they import most of their ingredients. However, the local culture does affect the way they prepare their foods.

Traditional Hawaiian foods also include a mix of American and Asian influences. As the halfway point across the Pacific, Hawaii has long worked to appeal to visitors from different areas, and that’s reflected in their cuisine.

Traditional Hawaiian Food 

Learn about seven of the most common Hawaiian dishes that you should try if you ever visit the Aloha state.

Lau Lau

Lau Lau is one of the classic Hawaiian foods. It’s not quite a food in its own right, but rather a preparation method.

If you’re unsure what to try when you visit Hawaii, I suggest you try this. Put simply, Lau Lau is an edible taro leaf wrapped around salted butterfish and fatty meat.

Most people use pork, but chicken and beef can also work.

Lau Lau may also have vegetables like sweet potatoes inside, wrapped up in a leaf packet, and then steamed underground.

Homeowners often use an oven, a rice cooker, or a pressure cooker instead.


Spam Musubi

This traditional Hawaiian dish has obvious Asian influences in it.

As the name suggests, Spam Musubi starts with the classic canned ham product, shaped into a flat rectangular patty with curved edges.

Once the meat is done grilling, it’s put on top of rice (yes, like sushi), then wrapped together with nori seaweed.

Spam Musubi is a relatively new food in Hawaii, but it’s a staple for many people because it’s cheap, easy to make, and tasty.

It’s also one of the simplest Hawaiian foods to make off the island, thanks to the widespread availability of its ingredients.


Kalua Pork

Kalua pork is a main dish for luaus, where an entire pig gets smoked in a sand pit.

Most preparation methods also include generous amounts of sea salt, banana leaves, and some koa wood to give it a more distinctive flavor.

Once cooked, the meat is shredded and mixed with a few other ingredients to make it easier to eat.

Trying authentic Kalua pork outside of Hawaii can be difficult, but you can get a close imitation by slow-cooking a pork butt roast.

Use roughly one tablespoon of liquid smoke and one and a half tablespoons of sea salt for every six pounds of meat.


Malasadas

Originally a Portuguese dish, Malasadas have since become a favorite dish in Hawaii.

These are simple treats made with fried yeast dough, often coated with sugar, cinnamon, and occasionally lemon zest.

Malasadas are smaller than many other types of doughnuts, but their light styling makes them easier to share with friends or family.

Traditional Malasadas are plain, but I suggest filling them with guava, haupia (coconut pudding), or lilikoi (yellow passionfruit) if you want a distinctively tropical flavor.

For a more mainland taste, put some chocolate or custard into Malasadas instead. These dough balls are flexible, so you have plenty of room to experiment.


Poi

Poi is one of my favorite traditional Hawaiian foods due entirely to its deceptively dessert-like nature.

This purple pudding-like dish isn’t dessert, it’s a staple food roughly equivalent to mashed potatoes.

The recipe is simple, usually involving steamed and peeled taro root, mashed with a pestle, and adding water until it gets relatively sticky.

Taro is an excellent addition to most diets, tasting somewhat similar to sweet potatoes. It also absorbs flavors well, so you can add a few seasonings to Poi and customize it to your liking.

Poi may take a little getting used to if you normally eat American food, but if you enjoy sweet vegetables, this may become a new favorite.


Chicken Long Rice

In this case, the long rice is extra long because it’s referring to vermicelli noodles, not traditional grain rice.

With that out of the way, chicken long rice is a noodle dish made with chicken thighs, ginger, green onions, and chicken broth. Unlike most soup dishes, the broth is minimal here. 

I prefer chicken long rice as a side dish because it’s small and light enough to serve alongside a bigger meal, but in the right quantity, it also works well as an entree.

If you want to make this outside Hawaii, just get some shredded chicken, vermicelli noodles, and ginger, and go from there.


The Plate Lunch

Although scholars dispute its exact origin, Hawaii’s plate lunch goes back to at least 1880, when laborers on the plantations would often have them for lunch.

A traditional plate lunch is two scoops of rice, one scoop of macaroni salad, and some type of meat. Lau Lau and Kalua Pork are common choices, but some people also use seafood.

Plate lunches are flexible, but with some people swapping components around. You may see poi instead of rice, for example, or fish instead of land-based meat. Many plate lunches also come with Haupia for dessert.

Many mainland teriyaki places essentially serve plate lunches, so you may have eaten a Hawaii-style meal already without even knowing about it.


Traditional Hawaiian Food 

  1. Lau Lau
  2. Spam Musubi
  3. Kalua Pork
  4. Malasadas
  5. Poi
  6. Chicken long rice
  7. The Plate Lunch

Final Thoughts

I love traditional Hawaiian foods. The mix of ingredients from different origins, put together to make a uniquely tropical dish is more than a little tantalizing for the taste buds. Even better, most of these dishes are highly affordable so you can try them on almost any budget.

If you’re not sure where to begin, try making Chicken Long Rice. It only takes a few simple ingredients you can find in many stores, and the result is a delightfully delicious treat. Malasadas are a great snack afterward.

If you’re visiting Hawaii, you can find all of these dishes (and more) in local restaurants. Expect to see a lot of Poi, as it’s the primary starch in many dishes.

Learn about other food cultures in the US and abroad, like popular Cajun dishes from Louisiana or common Brazilian breakfast foods.

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Written by Erin Elizabeth

Erin lives in East Passyunk and enjoys checking out the local restaurants in South Philly and beyond. Her favorite restaurants are those with spicy food and outdoor seating so that she can bring along her dog, Miss Piggy.