Cuisine of Hawaii

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Men cooking pork in imu, the Hawaiian earth oven. This ancient practice of cooking continues to this day.
Shrimp plate lunch

The Cuisine of Hawaii is a fusion of many foods brought by immigrants to the Hawaiian Islands, particularly of American, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Polynesian and Portuguese origins, including plant and animal food sources imported from around the world for agricultural use in Hawaii. Many local restaurants serve the ubiquitous plate lunch featuring the Asian staple, two scoops of rice, a simplified version of American macaroni salad (consisting of macaroni and mayonnaise), and a variety of different toppings ranging from the hamburger patty, a fried egg, and gravy of a Loco Moco, Japanese style tonkatsu or the traditional lu'au favorite, kalua pig and beef, and curry.


Pre-contact period[edit]

Taro, Colocasia esculenta

When Polynesian seafarers arrived on the Hawaiian Islands in 300–500 AD,[a] few edible plants existed in the new land, aside from a few ferns and fruits that grew at higher elevations. Botanists and archaeologists believe that these voyagers introduced anywhere between 27 and possibly more than 30 plants to the islands, mainly for food.[1] The most important of them was taro.[2] For centuries taro, and the poi made from it, was the main staple of their diet, and it is still much loved today. In addition to taro, sweet potatoes and yams were planted. The Marquesans, the first settlers from Polynesia, brought breadfruit and the Tahitians later introduced the baking banana. These settlers from Polynesia also brought coconuts and sugarcane.[3] They found plenty of fish, shellfish, and limu in the new land.[1] Flightless birds were easy to catch and nests were full of eggs for the taking.[1] Most Pacific islands had no meat animals except bats and lizards, so ancient Polynesians sailed the Pacific with pigs, chickens and dogs as cargo.[4] Pigs were raised for religious sacrifice, and the meat was offered at altars, some of which was consumed by priests and the rest eaten in a mass celebration.[4] The early Hawaiian diet was diverse, and may have included as many as 130 different types of seafood and 230 types of sweet potatoes.[5] Some species of land and sea birds were consumed into extinction.[6]

Kukui foliage, flowers, and nut

Sea salt was a common condiment in ancient Hawaii,[7] and Inamona, a relish made of roasted, mashed kukui nutmeats, sea salt and sometimes mixed with seaweeds, often accompanied the meals.[7] At important occasions, a traditional feast, ‘aha‘aina, was held. When a woman was to have her first child, her husband started raising a pig for the ‘Aha‘aina Mawaewae feast that was celebrated for the birth of a child. Besides the pig, mullet, shrimp, crab, seaweeds and taro leaves were required for the feast.[8] The modern name for such feasts, lū‘au, was not used until 1856, replacing the Hawaiian words ‘aha‘aina and pā‘ina.[9] The name lū‘au came from the name of a food always served at a ‘aha‘aina — young taro tops baked with coconut milk and chicken or octopus.

Prior to cooking, pigs and dogs were killed by strangulation or by holding their nostrils shut, in order to conserve the animal's blood.[10] Meat was prepared by flattening out the whole eviscerated animal and broiling it over hot coals, or it was spitted on sticks.[10] Large pieces of meat, such as fowl, pigs and dogs, would be typically cooked in earth ovens, or spitted over a fire during ceremonial feasts.[4][10] Hawaiian earth ovens, known as an imu, combine roasting and steaming in a method called kālua. A pit is dug into earth and lined with volcanic rocks and other rocks that do not split when heated to a high temperature, such as granite.[11] A fire is built with embers, and when the rocks are glowing hot, the embers are removed and the foods wrapped in ti, ginger or banana leaves are put into the pit, covered with wet leaves, mats and a layer of earth. Water may be added through a bamboo tube to create steam. The intense heat from the hot rocks cooked food thoroughly — the quantity of food for several days could be cooked at once, taken out and eaten as needed, and the cover replaced to keep the remainder warm.[7] Sweet potatoes, taro, breadfruit and other vegetables were cooked in the imu, as well as fish. Saltwater eel was salted and dried before being put into the imu.[12] Chickens, pigs and dogs were put into the imu with hot rocks inserted in the abdominal cavities.[7] Men did all of the cooking, and food for women was cooked in a separate imu; afterwards men and women ate meals separately.[b] The ancient practice of cooking with the imu continues to this day, for special occasions.[13]

Post-contact period[edit]

In 1778, Captain James Cook visited the island of Niihau, leaving a ram goat, ewes, a boar, an English sow, and seeds for melons, pumpkins, and onions.[14] In 1793, Captain George Vancouver brought the first cattle to the islands; longhorns from California were presented to King Kamehameha I.[15][16] With no natural predators, the new cattle multiplied out of control; the king hired an American man named John Parker to capture and domesticate cattle.[16] Many of the cattle were butchered and beef was introduced to Hawaiian cuisine.

In 1813, pineapple was first cultivated in Honolulu by Don Francisco de Paula Marin,[17] a Spanish botanist and advisor to King Kamehameha I. Although grape vines were introduced by Captain Vancouver around 1792, Marin is credited with the first Hawaiian vineyard in 1815 and planting the now rare Mission grape variety.[18] Marin also brewed the first beer in 1812,[19] and planted the first coffee crop in 1817, but his plantings failed.[20] Marin, called "Manini" by the Hawaiians, experimented with planting oranges, limes, beans, cabbages, potatoes, peaches, melons, maize and lettuce.

By the late 19th century, pineapple and sugarcane plantations owned and run by American settlers took over much of Hawaii's land, and these two crops became the most important sources of revenues for the Hawaiian economy.[21]

Ethnic foods[edit]

Demographics of Hawaii in 1959, showing that Japanese immigrants were the largest ethnic group at that time

As the plantations expanded, the demand for labor grew, so the plantation owners hired immigrant workers, which included Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, and Portuguese. Each ethnic group wanted its own food in workplaces, and farms and grocery markets were established. The Chinese immigrants brought Cantonese cuisine, cooking the first stir fry, sweet and sour, and dim sum dishes in the islands,[22] and replaced poi with rice, adding their own herbs and spices.[21] Chinese rice growers imported familiar fish varieties from Asia to stock local streams and irrigation ditches.[23]

Korean immigration to Hawaii brought kimchi and built barbecue pits to cook marinated meats. Korean style bulgogi or boneless meat with moderately-sweet garlic sauce and galbi or meat with bones and moderately-sweet garlic sauce as well, and another Korean favorite bibimbab or mixed rice with seasoned vegetables, namul, sweet and spicy gochujang and bulgogi topping also became an integral part of Hawaiian cuisine.[24]

The Portuguese immigrants came to Hawaii from the Azores in the late 19th century,[25] introducing their foods with an emphasis on pork, tomatoes and chili peppers, and built forno, their traditional beehive oven, to make Pão Doce, the Portuguese sweet bread and malasada.[2] Whalers brought in salted fish, which ultimately became lomi-lomi salmon.[11] The Japanese brought bento and sashimi, and, although many of their vegetable seeds would not grow in the climate of the islands, they succeeded in making tofu and soy sauce.[2] The homes of Japanese immigrants lacked ovens, so their cooking relied on frying, steaming, broiling, and simmering, leading to the popularization of tempura and noodle soups in Hawaii.[22] By the early 20th century, the Japanese were the largest ethnic group and rice became the third largest crop in the islands.[26]

Puerto Rican immigration to Hawaii began in 1900, contributing spicy, Spanish-seasoned thick soups, casseroles, pasteles, and meat turnovers.[22] Filipinos reached Hawaii in 1909, bringing peas and beans, the adobo style of vinegar and garlic dishes, choosing to boil, stew, broil, and fry food instead of baking, and eating sweet potatoes as a staple instead of rice.[22] Samoans arrived in 1919, building their earth ovens above ground instead of below like the imu, and made poi from fruit instead of taro.[22] After the Vietnam War ended in 1975 immigrants from Southeast Asia arrived,[27] bringing lemongrass, fish sauce and galangal popular in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.[22]

Late 19th – 20th century[edit]

Royal Hawaiian Hotel was one of the first hotels built along the shores of Waikīkī

The first restaurant in Honolulu was opened in 1849 by a Portuguese man named Peter Fernandez. Situated behind the Bishop & Co. bank, the establishment was known as the "eating house" and was followed by other restaurants, such as Leon Dejean's "Parisian Restaurant" at the corner of Hotel and Fort Streets.[28] In 1872, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened on Hotel Street, and as one of the most refined hotels in the Pacific, it catered to wealthy clients. The Royal Hawaiian dining room served dishes on par with the best restaurants in Europe, with an 1874 menu offering dishes such as mullet, spring lamb, chicken with tomatoes, and Cabinet Pudding.[29]

The massive pineapple industry of Hawaii was born when the "Pineapple King", James Dole, planted pineapples on the island of Oahu in 1901.[2] In 1922, Dole purchased the island of Lanai for a large-scale pineapple production. By 1950, his Hawaiian Pineapple Company was the largest pineapple company in the world.[2]

Sam Choy, one of the founding contributors of Hawaii Regional Cuisine

In 1905, George R. Carter, Territorial Governor of Hawai'i, promoted increasing local agricultural production, saying that "there was a time when Hawaii supplied California with flour, also potatoes and other vegetables. Now California produces her own and sends part of the surplus here." Newspaper editorials of the time also questioned why locally-grown guavas were rotting on the ground while agribusiness were planting non-native pineapples in Hawaii. These concerns were not addressed until almost a century later, when the regional cuisine movement began encouraging the food industry to "grow local, buy local, and eat local."[30] Since the 1970s, pineapples have been grown more cheaply in Southeast Asia, so Hawaiian agriculture has taken a diverse approach, producing a variety of crops, including squash, tomatoes, chili peppers and lettuce.[2] From 1978-1988, chefs who came to Hawaii would avoid Hawaiian-grown ingredients like their European counterparts, preferring to ship everything in from the U.S. mainland, or as far away as Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.[31]

Hawaiian regional cuisine: Seared ahi and wasabi beurre blanc sauce

In August 1991, a group of chefs in Hawaii came together to form an organization to create a new American regional cuisine, highlighting Hawaii's locally grown ingredients and diverse ethnic styles.[31] In 1992, twelve chefs, including Sam Choy, George Mavrothalassitis, Alan Wong, Peter Merriman, Philippe Padovani, and Roy Yamaguchi, formed a non profit as Hawaii regional cuisine and worked to publish the 1994 cookbook by Janice Wald Henderson, The New Cuisine of Hawaii. These chefs also sponsored a cookbook to be sold for charity.[32] The goal of this new group of chefs was to link local agriculture with the restaurant industry, making Hawaii Regional Cuisine (see also Hawaii regional cuisine) a reflection of the community. For this, they took an uninspired international hotel cuisine based on imported products and replaced it with a cuisine based on locally grown foods.[3]

Japanese-American baker Robert Taira, came up with a recipe for the Hawaiian version of Portuguese sweet bread in the 1950s. Taira began to commercially produce the bread in Hawaii, and it became successful in Honolulu bakeries and coffee shops, with plant production expanding to California and South Carolina. By the 1980s, Taira's company, King's Hawaiian Bakery, was grossing US$20 million annually.[25]

Don the Beachcomber, a former bootlegger, opened what is acknowledged to be the first of Tiki restaurants, and claims the creation of the mai tai. As servicemen and servicewomen from the Pacific theater of World War II began coming home they brought recipes and tastes that could not be satisfied at the Italian, French, and American restaurants of the era. Tiki restaurants soon began appearing that were often accompanied by tiki bars with tropical drinks. One of these chains that took advantage of this new clientele with a taste for the exotic was run by Trader Vic. Of the 26 restaurants which at one time existed, only a few, such as the Emeryville location, remain. Much of the food served at tiki restaurants is considered to be Cantonese cuisine, but the fusion of Hawaiian ingredients is what made it tiki.


Vegetables, fruits and nuts[edit]

Sweet potato



Spam musubi

The Hormel company's canned meat product Spam has been highly popular in Hawaii for decades. Hawaiians are the second largest consumers of Spam in the world, right behind Guam.[34] Originally brought to Hawaii by American servicemen in their rations,[35] Spam became an important source of protein for locals after fishing around the islands was prohibited during World War II.[3] In 2005, Hawaiians consumed more than five million cans of Spam.[34]

Spam is used in local dishes in a variety of ways, most commonly fried and served with rice. For breakfast, fried eggs are often served with spam.[34] Spam can also be wrapped in ti and roasted, skewered and deep fried,[3] or stir-fried with cabbage.[34] It is added to saimin or fried rice, mashed with tofu, or served with cold sōmen or baked macaroni and cheese. It is also used in chutney for pupus, in sandwiches with mayonnaise, or baked with guava jelly.[34] Spam musubi, a slice of fried Spam upon a bed of rice wrapped with a strip of nori, is a popular snack in Hawaii which found its way onto island sushi menus in the 1980s.[34]


In the 19th century, John Parker brought over Mexican cowboys to train the Hawaiians in cattle ranching.[16] The Hawaiian cowboys of Kamuela and Kula came to be called paniolos. Cattle ranching grew rapidly for the next one hundred years. In 1960, half of the land in Hawaii was devoted to ranching for beef export, but by 1990 the number had shrunk to 25 percent.[36] The paniolos chewed pipikaula ("beef rope"), a salted and dried beef that resembles beef jerky.[37] Pipikaula would usually be broiled before serving.[38] With the influence of Asian cooking, beef strips are commonly marinated in soy sauce.[37] When beef is dried in the sun, a screened box is traditionally used to keep the meat from dust and flies. Dried meat could often be found as a relish or appetizer at a lū‘au.[37]

Fish and seafood[edit]

Tuna is the most important fish in Hawaiian cuisine.[40] Varieties include the skipjack tuna (aku), the yellowfin tuna (ahi), and the albacore tuna (tombo). Ahi in particular has a long history, since ancient Hawaiians used it on long ocean voyages because it is well preserved when salted and dried.[41] A large portion of the local tuna fishery goes to Japan to be sold for sashimi.[40] Tuna is eaten as sashimi in Hawaii as well, but is also grilled or sautéed, or made into poke.

The Pacific blue marlin (kajiki) is barbecued or grilled, but should not be overcooked due to its very low fat content.[40] The broadbill swordfish (shutome), popular and shipped all over the mainland United States, is high in fat and its steaks may be grilled, broiled, or used in stir-fries. The groupers (hapuu) are most often steamed. The red snapper (onaga) is steamed, poached, or baked. The pink snapper (opakapaka) has a higher fat, and is steamed or baked, served with a light sauce. The Wahoo (ono) is grilled or sautéed, and the dolphin fish (mahimahi) is usually cut into steaks and fried or grilled. The moonfish (opah) is used for broiling, smoking, or making sashimi.


Showing the island's Asian influence, Teriyaki has become the most popular way of treating meats, including Spam.[26] Other common Asian spices include Five-spice powder from China, Wasabi and Shoyu (Soy sauce) from Japan, and Bagoong from the Philippines. Types of spices endemic to Hawaii cuisine include Huli-huli sauce and Chili pepper water.


Tako (octopus) poke with tomatoes, green onion, maui onion, soy sauce, sesame oil, sea salt, chili pepper
Plate lunch, with ahi poke, lomi lomi salmon, kalua pork, pork lau lau, steamed rice, haupia


Poke is a local cuisine that originally involved preserving raw fish with sea salt and rubbing (lomi) it with seasonings or cutting it into small pieces. Seasonings made of seaweed, kukui nut, and sea salt were traditionally used for the Hawaiian poke. Since first contact with Western and Asian cultures, scallions, chili peppers, and soy sauce have become common additions to it.[42] Poke is different from sashimi, since the former is usually rough-cut and piled onto a plate, and can be made with less expensive pieces of fish.[43]

During the early 1970s, poke became an appetizer to have with beer or to bring to a party.[44]

Plate lunch[edit]

Usually served during lunch, plate lunches consists of an entreé of meat or seafood, two scoops of rice, and macaroni salad.


See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


a. ^ The early settlement history of Hawaiʻi is not completely resolved. One theory is that the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaiʻi in the third century from the Marquesas and were followed by Tahitian settlers in 1300 AD who conquered the original inhabitants. Another is that there was an extended period of contact but not necessarily for a Tahitian invasion.[47]

b. ^ Men and women ate their meals separately to preserve the distinction between male and female mana, which was thought to be blurred by both sexes handling the same food. In addition, some foods were forbidden to women, such as pork, certain kinds of fish and most types of bananas.[7]


  1. ^ a b c Laudan 1996, p. 216.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Nenes 2007, p. 478.
  3. ^ a b c d Nenes 2008, p. 479.
  4. ^ a b c Brennan 2000, pp. 135–138.
  5. ^ Adams 2006, pp. 90–92.
  6. ^ Brennan 2000, p. 139.
  7. ^ a b c d e Kane 1998, p. 53.
  8. ^ Choy & Cook 2003, pp. 12–13.
  9. ^ Pukui & Elbert 1986, pp. 214.
  10. ^ a b c Schwabe 1979, p. 171.
  11. ^ a b Choy & Cook 2003, p. 16.
  12. ^ Brennan 2000, pp. 271–273.
  13. ^ Corum 2000, p. 3.
  14. ^ HRHAS 1850, pp. 45–46.
  15. ^ Loomis 2006, p. 8.
  16. ^ a b c Barnes 1999, pp. 27–28.
  17. ^ Paul 2003, p. 253.
  18. ^ Miller, Bazore & Robbins 2002, p. 30.
  19. ^ a b Adams 2007, The Honolulu Advertiser
  20. ^ Miller, Bazore & Robbins 2002, pp. 25–26
  21. ^ a b Nenes 2007, p. 477.
  22. ^ a b c d e f Henderson 1994, p. 18.
  23. ^ Gabaccia 2000, p. 66.
  24. ^ Poet Paul Lee's commentary for this article, May 14, 2008
  25. ^ a b Laudan 1996, p. 134.
  26. ^ a b Laudan 1996, p. 5.
  27. ^ Corum 2000, p. 194,
  28. ^ Rea & Ting 1991, p. 30.
  29. ^ Rea & Ting 1991, p. 48.
  30. ^ Adams 2006, p. 10
  31. ^ a b Henderson 1994, p. xvi
  32. ^ Laudan 1996, p. 7.
  33. ^ Brennan 2000, pp. 252–267.
  34. ^ a b c d e f Adams 2006, pp. 58–59.
  35. ^ Kulick & Meneley 2005, p. 187.
  36. ^ Miller, Latham & Flynn 1998, p. 83.
  37. ^ a b c Adams 2006, p. 98.
  38. ^ Choy & Cook 2003, p. 63.
  39. ^ Ingredients: Raw ahi (yellow fin) tuna with chopped roasted kukui nuts, green onions, Hawaiian chili peppers, shoyu (soy sauce), sesame oil, Hawaiian sea salt, and limukohu (a type of delicate seaweed) served on a bed of red cabbage.
  40. ^ a b c Nenes 2007, p. 480.
  41. ^ Laudan 1996, pp. 265–276.
  42. ^ Piianaia 2007, Waimea Gazette
  43. ^ Nenes 2007, p. 485.
  44. ^ Long 2003, pp. 116.
  45. ^ a b Schindler & Schindler 1981, p. 14.
  46. ^ Brennan 2000, pp. 230–231.
  47. ^ Kirch 2001, p. 80.


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