Hawaii has a rich cultural history, and the food enjoyed on Hawaii reflects this diversity. I was surprised to discover so many new and exciting dishes to try on visiting Hawaii for the first time. Here are 5 foods that I hadn’t encountered before heading to the Islands, but are now firm favorites!
Wow! Poke (Po-keh) is one of those dishes that looks a little dubious before eating but upon tasting for the first time will keep you coming back for more! This dish is made from cubed and salted raw fish. That’s right – raw! But it’s usually served with a seasoning or sauce making it delicious to eat. You’ll probably spot poke as an appetiser option on restaurant menus in Hawaii, and the poke bowl makes for a popular and convenient lunch option. It’s simply rice on the bottom with a choice of poke on the top. We like to pick our poke bowls up from the local Foodland.
We enjoy Poke so much we wrote an entire blog about it, read it here.
2. Plate Lunch or Mixed Plate
As a non-native to Hawaii, when I first heard the term ‘Plate Lunch’ on Hawaii, I have to confess I was confused about what I was about to be served. Aren’t all lunches served on plates? But what I soon discovered is that the Plate Lunch is a staple of Hawaiian life.
A typical plate lunch is two scoops of rice, one scoop of Island-style macaroni salad (or ‘Mac-salad’) and an entree, which varies but is often Asian-inspired. A popular choice on the Islands is Chicken Katsu (we love the Chicken Katsu at Da Kitchen) but you may also get native Hawaiian choices such as kalua pork (see below).
The plate lunch dates back to the late 1800s when hungry Hawaiian plantation workers were served a simple meal at lunch of rice and meat often served on compartmentalised plates (hence the name ‘plate lunch’).
A mixed plate is a plate lunch but with more variety. You may have two or more entrees on the plate allowing you to try a variety of food in one meal. If you check out a luau during your time in Hawaii, you’ll probably find yourself creating your own Hawaiian mix-plate from a wide selection of different Hawaiian foods for you to try.
3. Kalua Pork
‘Kalua’ means to bake in an underground oven, and that’s exactly how Kalua Pork is traditionally prepared. A hardwood fire is built inside a dirt pit, and large stones are placed on the fire and left for about 2-3 hours until they get up to temperature. Then vegetation is used to line the pit, the pig placed on top, and then further vegetation and soil seal the oven. The pig is left to cook for several hours below the ground!
The ancient Hawaiians would prepare this dish at festivals for the King and initially it was only be the very elite who were allowed to taste the pork. Gradually the luau feast was popularised and everyone was allowed to eat the Kalua pork, which is central to the Luau feast.
We’d recommend attending a luau whilst in Hawaii. They will serve you this traditional Hawaiian dish, and normally invite guests to see the great unearthing of the Kalua pig from the Imu (underground oven).
Today, there are quicker less labour intensive ways to prepare Kalua pork and so you will be able to try Kalua pork at restaurants around Hawaii, which have not undergone such an involved process – but still taste pretty good!
Taro is another thing I had never experienced before visiting Hawaii. Taro is a plant grown as a root vegetable for its edible starchy corms which turn a vibrant purple color upon cooking. Taro can be made into the traditional Hawaiian food ‘Poi’ which has a paste like texture and is very slightly sweet. You may spot it as a side dish if you attend a luau. To be honest I think poi is an acquired taste and not for everybody! Taro in my view is best experienced by snacking on some tasty taro chips, or by tucking into a taro sweet bread roll which tastes great cut in half and smeared with some lilikoi butter!
5. Li Hing Mui Powder
I have to confess I was initially very sceptical of this one. Partly because it looks such an alarming red color! Li Hing Mui (translated from Chinese as ‘traveling plum’) is a made from pickled plum skins which have been flavored with licorice or prune, salt, and sugar and then ground into a reddish powder. It’s perhaps most commonly eaten sprinkled on fresh or dried fruit. The popularity of Li Hing Mui has grown so much that you may encounter it sprinkled on shave ice, the rim of your margarita glass or even on salad dressings! I personally like it on pineapple, and you can pick this up pre-made from Tamura’s liquor store (in Maui and Honolulu).
We hope you get to try these 5 foods when in Hawaii! What are your favorite foods to eat across the Islands?
Attending a luau is a great way to try these and many more traditional Hawaiian dishes. Check out some of the luaus below to find out more.