Hawaiian Food Culture: 12 Best Dishes You Should Eat When in Hawaii

Every country and its culture can be easily understood from its culinary experiences. A nation or a culture is what it serves on its plate. Its food is an amalgamation of its history, culture, and foreign invasions and an evolutionary mix of traditional tastes and modern influences. A table full of food will heartily and happily give away what its people are like.

30-second summary:

🍜 Staple foods of the Hawaiians were breadfruit, sweet potato, bananas, and taro tops.

🍴 Hawaiians prefer locally grown foods.

🫕 Spam musubi is the most popular traditional food dish in Hawaii.

🍛 “Plate Lunch” is a popular Hawaii meal that can be found on many local restaurant menus.

No matter where you happen to travel, all you need to do is hit the local restaurants and streetside cafes to know that country inside out. The aromas coming out from the bustling kitchens whipping up local delicacies will give you a fair idea about life there.

And you can bring back some palate tickling, tasty memories along with a bag full of local legends, stories, and anecdotes.

This is exactly what Hawaiian food is. A bountiful treasure-trove of fresh fruits and vegetables, several cattle farms, and sashimi-grade fish from the Pacific waters, Hawaiian cuisine is a beautiful celebration of flavors and traditions.

Traditional hawaiian food

Hawaiian Food Culture
Traditional Hawaiian dishes with octopus

Rich with ancient customs and tapered with global influences brought to the islands over many generations, Hawaiian cuisine’s versatility is hard to match.

Laden with different cultural and ethnic influences including Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and many others, the local food is an absolute treat to your culinary senses.

With an abundance of different tastes, aromas, textures, and colors, Hawaiian food culture is an experience like no other. So, if you happen to visit Hawaii, don’t miss these 12 must-have dishes:


Hawaiian Food Culture
Saimin is a Noodle dish that comprises charsiu, fishcake, green onion, and hot mustard.

The legend has it, the Chinese and Japanese migrant workers brought this delicious, comfort soup into the Hawaiian Islands during the plantation era. And since then, it has turned into one of the most popular Hawaiian food items.

A perfect blend of ramen, Chinese egg-noodle soup, and traditional Hawaiian flavors, it is a broth-rich soup that is often flavored with green onions, kimchi, kamaboko (fish cakes), and ham or pork.

Such has been the popularity of this dish that every restaurant serves a signature twist to it with various options including mushrooms, eggs, spams, shrimp, bok choy, and even wontons.

Even though it is readily available in every nook and corner of Hawaii, no variation of saimin is as good as the one made at home. The cultural significance of saimin lies in the fact that it is often cooked to express love and affection.

If you are feeling down, ask for a bowl full of saimin to drive away the blues.


Hawaiian Food Culture
Poke is made from yellowfin tuna. It comprises green onions, chili peppers, sea salt, soy sauce, sesame oil, roasted kukui nut (candlenut), and limu, served on a bed of red cabbage.

From being a local favorite to featuring on the restaurant menus across the world, poke has traveled like no other Hawaiian dish has.

And even though it has caught the world’s fancy in recent years, you haven’t had the real ahi poke if you haven’t tasted the one cooked in local Hawaiian restaurants.

Literally meaning ‘to cut crosswise’, poke is an age-old Hawaiian food believed to have been introduced by the Polynesians who seasoned the raw fish with salt and seaweed, and later added flavoring and preservatives to fish.

Made of chopped seafood (mostly tuna), and mixed with onions on rice, poke is delectable simply because of the ample supply of fresh fish Hawaii has access to.

Marinated in soy sauce, and sesame oil (just like a variety of other Hawaiian dishes are), poke bowls are a hogger’s delight. They are wholesome, tasty, and readily available anywhere in Hawaii.

Luau Stew

Hawaiian Food Culture
Luau Stew – a food dish made from the Luau leaves doesn’t look great, but it tastes great. #PersonalExperience

Luau stew is slow cooking at its best. It is made of luau leaves from the taro plant (nothing in the Hawaiian cuisine is complete without a taro plant element in it) that is seasoned with garlic, cloves, onions, and salt.

While the vegetarians can enjoy the stew itself, non-vegetarians can enjoy different variations of beef, fish, and lamb that are slowly cooked until they turn teasingly tender.

As one of the most popular Hawaiian dishes, luau stew is readily available at most takeout shops, restaurants, and cafes, and local mom and pop counters.

The best part is that each one of them will provide a signature take of the stew and each one is equally delicious. While some may add coconut milk to give it a creamy feel, others may add seaweed, ginger, or even squid for a distinct flavor.

While Yama’s Fish Market in Honolulu is known to serve the best luau stew in the whole of Hawaii, you will always find it in all kinds of parties and gatherings.

No special celebrations in Hawaii get over without this traditional Hawaiian food.

Loco Moco

Hawaiian Food Culture
Source: Wikipedia | the famous loco moco dish of Hawaii

It is said that necessity is the mother of all inventions, and it couldn’t be more apt for loco moco, a dish that is believed to have originated out of a desire to eat something inexpensive yet wholesome.

In 1949, a group of teenagers visited a restaurant in Hilo and asked for an affordable alternative to a sandwich that was quick to make and was filling in terms of portions.

The restaurant whipped up a bowl full of rice, a hamburger patty topped with brown gravy. And it became an instant hit with that group of teenagers who named it loco moco after the name of one of their group’s members Loco.

Later, moco was added to the name just because it rhymed.

The fried egg was a later addition to the dish that now makes it one of the most popular dishes in Hawaiian food.

Today, loco moco is available everywhere on the islands with several restaurants serving it with mouth-watering variations.

Instead of a hamburger patty, you can opt for bacon, kalua pig, tofu, oyster, shrimp, chicken, or any other meat as per your preference.

This heavy on the stomach, traditional Hawaiian food is a perfect choice for long, lazy afternoons.


Hawaiian Food Culture
A street vendor cooking Manapua | Source: wikipedia.com

Yet another Chinese influence, manapua is also believed to have traveled to the Hawaiian Islands during the plantation era and is a take on the traditional Chinese dish char siu baos or bao buns.

The Hawaiian version is slightly bigger and sweeter than its Chinese counterpart, but it is equally tasty and popular.

As the name goes, it can be loosely translated to ‘delicious pork thing’ or ‘mountain of pork’. So, it is clear that all pork lovers would never want to miss out on trying this Hawaiian staple food during a trip to the islands.

Finding it is never an issue as almost all restaurants serving Chinese cuisines have manapua on their menu. Not just that, they are also a hit with smaller, takeaway counters as an on-the-go option.

The traditional manapua is made from fatty pork marinated in char siu seasoning (a combination of cane sugar, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and 5-seasoning powder). It is then roasted to bring out a perfectly sweet and salty taste that goes well with the fluffy bun.

Of course, there are several variations of this traditional Hawaiian food dish, but we recommend that you try the original recipe.

Lomi Lomi Salmon

Hawaiian Food Culture
Lomi Lomi Salmon | Source: wikipedia.com

Most Hawaiian dishes are more about the taste than the prettiness they provide to the plate. But lomi lomi Salmon is different. It is just as pretty looking a dish as it is delicious.

So, for all those Instagramers who love to post a picture of their meal, this is the one to order when in Hawaii.

A plateful of diced tomatoes, green onions, and salmon (or other fish varieties), lomi lomi is a combination of fresh flavors and vibrant colors. A light on the stomach meal, lomi lomi is a seafood lover’s delight, and it goes well with a nice, healthy salad as well.

Since Hawaiians love their meals to be wholesome, lomi lomi Salmon is often served as part of a larger meal with a side of poi or rice.


Hawaiian Food Culture
Hawaiian Pastele | Source: wikipedia.com

Pasteles are much like the Mesoamerican dish Tamales in appearance, even though the preparation, ingredients, and taste might differ.

In Hawaii, pastele comes with a central filing of seafood, chicken, pork, or vegetables that is surrounded by plantain, banana leaf, and other root veggies that are grounded till the time they become like a dough. This dough is then wrapped into a banana leaf (the more authentic and traditional versions use ti-leaf to wrap the mid-portion), and steamed till they become tender. The steamed pastele is then served with a bowl of gandule rice, a dish prepared with pigeon peas and sofrito.

Some restaurants and cafes also serve pastele with a side salad for the calorie-conscious.

Although pasteles are quite popular in Hawaii, especially in the Puerto Rican community, they are not as readily available as some of the other traditional Hawaiian food items.

There are only a handful of restaurants that serve good quality pasteles, and if you get lucky, you might bump into a food stall by the streets serving the traditional varieties.

Kalua Pork

Hawaiian Food Culture
Kalua Pork | Source: wikipedia.com

By now, we have already mentioned Kalua Pork a couple of times and you must be sure that it is a traditional Hawaiian food that locals love to savor.

It is believed that Polynesians, who came into the islands back in 300 AD brought pigs and other animals along with them for farming and other purposes.

And Kalua pork became a delicacy that was only cooked during special occasions and celebrations.

The striking part of history is that kalua pig was believed to be so rare and sacrosanct that women were not allowed to eat any of it.

While the approach towards the dish has changed over the years, and yes women do eat it now, the cooking method remains pretty much the same.

The pork is cooked in a pit with lava rock coal. The pig is wrapped in ti-leaves and placed on the top of the coal and then covered by more dirt that holds the heat. As the process of slow cooking takes its course, the final result is a succulent, smoky flavored pork dish that the Hawaiians simply can’t resist.


Hawaiian Food Culture
Poi is hawaiian dessert | Source: wikipedia.com

Although poi is more like a side dish to numerous traditional Hawaiian food items, it is something locals can’t do without.

For a tourist, it might look like an extra that you might want to ignore, it is a staple Hawaiian food item that is served along with kalua pork, lomi lomi salmon, salted fish, and more.

The root of the taro plant is steamed or baked and then pounded to make poi. The pounding continues until it becomes like a sticky pudding.

The consistency of poi differs from one maker to the other, but how good it is is determined by how many fingers you need to scoop it. The more the merrier.

Yes, it’s a tradition to eat poi with fingers, what can we say about local traditions!

Spam Musubi

Hawaiian Food Culture
Spam Musubi | Source: wikipedia.com

World War II might not have had any positives to consider, but the Hawaiian Islands got one of the favorite snacks during this bloody period in history – the Spam Musubi.

After the Pearl Harbour attack, a large number of American troops were stationed in the Hawaiian Islands that brought Spam cans, a popular snack in the US along with them.

It was imported in such large quantities, that it was made available to the locals as well. And the Hawaiians couldn’t stop eating it in the form of Spam Musubi.

Over the years, it got a Hawaiian twist where Spam was inserted in yet another Japanese snack onigiri (read the irony, Pearl Harbour was attacked by Japan).

Onigiri is a snack where rice is compacted and then wrapped in nori (made of black seaweed paper). Furikake seasoning is sprinkled on the dish to make it tastier.

Along with that salmon, tuna, pickled plum, and other food items are added on the side to make a tastier version of Spam Musubi.

Chicken Long Rice

Hawaiian Food Culture
Chicken Long Rice

Yet another delight dish that has made its way into the Hawaiian cuisine, chicken long rice has its origin in China.

But, what you get in Hawaii is a localized take on the dish.

The Hawaiian Chicken Long Rice is a simple combination of clear mung bean noodles that are cooked in chicken soup.

It’s a light, healthy and taste-bud tickling mix of soupy noodles and chunks of chicken with a gingery punch to it.

Often served with a combination of other traditional Hawaiian food dishes, chicken long rice is a staple in Hawaiian plate lunch.

Shave Ice

Hawaiian Food Culture
Shave Ice

Probably the only desserty dish in this list, shave ice has its roots back in the plantation era when Japanese immigrants working in the fields would shave off the ice with their tools after a hard day at work and top it up with sugary syrup or fruit juices to cool themselves down.

And the dish has, since then become a popular dessert that is enjoyed by the locals all year round.

Even today, shave ice is enjoyed much in the same manner, only the artistic bent has made it even more appealing to the culinary senses. Simply put, it is the Hawaiian version of an ice cream.

Similar to ice cream, flavors such as pineapple, mango, and strawberries are all-time favorites, while other flavors like pina colada, vanilla, and green tea are also popular.

Many shops have introduced fruit-based, organic syrups that add more variety and quality to this timeless ice dish.

Frequently Asked Questions regarding Hawaiian Foods

What are the most popular dishes on Hawaiian Island?

Two of the most popular dishes you must not miss are poi and kalua pork. While poi is an all-time favorite and is served as a side dish with almost every other popular food item in Hawaii, kalua pig is a traditional delicacy that is enjoyed during special occasions and celebrations. Both these dishes are extremely popular in the Hawaiian Islands and can be found in every restaurant. While poi’s preparation remains pretty much the same across, kalua pig has a few variations that you might want to try on your next trip.

What can you have for breakfast in Hawaii?

A combination of Portuguese sausages, eggs, and rice called loco moco is one of the most preferred dishes that Hawaiians have for breakfast. With an interesting back story, this dish is filling, affordable, and can be cooked easily early in the mornings. Although the traditional loco moco has a burger patty in the middle, locals prefer sausages in the breakfast preparation. Apart from this wholesome dish, fresh fruits and juices are also quite popular as breakfast items, especially for those who like things light and healthy. So, if you wish to indulge yourself in a healthy juice combo, go for POG – passion fruit, orange, and guava drink.

Is there a national dish in Hawaii?

There is no official national dish in Hawaii, but if you had to go by the popularity, and most locals will agree with us here – the Hawaiian plate lunch is the closest. This lovely meal includes two scoops of rice, a macaroni salad, and an entrée. The third dish on the plate lunch could be anything from kalua pork, lomi lomi salmon, laulau, or any other kind of meat. Several restaurants also offer a mixed plate lunch where you can choose a combination of different dishes.

What food is Hawaii famous for?

While numerous traditional Hawaiian food dishes have been popularised across the globe, when it comes to putting Hawaii on the global food map Poke is the dish that does the trick! This dish is prepared using chunky raw fish, marinated with soy sauce and sesame oil, seasoned with Hawaiian sea salt makes for a perfect mid-day meal! Available everywhere from high-end restaurants t0 small takeout shops, and everything in between, this lip-smacking traditional Hawaiian food will leave an astounding taste in your mouth!

James Ardimento has spent the last 12 years journeying around the globe ! With its precious experiences and tips he gained around Asia, South America, Europe and the US he is a precious asset for this blog and for its readers