Hawaiian Cuisine

Multi-Layered Cuisine
Luau’s, Poi, Poke, Tikis and Spam

“Mangoes of golden flesh, with turpentine

Coconut Palms

“Peel and odor. Plums of inky stain
“And the pucker of persimmons….” — Genevieve Taggard, “The Luau” [1]

“Shrimps, sea-urchins, lobsters, crabs and various kinds of shell-fish, as well as sea weed….” — Henry M. Whitney, Hawaiian Guide Book, 1875 [2]

The Paradise of the Pacific is truly

a paradise for people who love a variety of Fruits and Sea Foods.  Hawaiian cuisine has several things going for it —

  • Terrain that permits different crops according to altitude
  • Climate that favors temperate, subtropical and tropical varieties
  • Vast range of Fish and other Sea Foods
  • Several centuries of culinary imports from all over the Pacific Rim and beyond

The result is a cuisine that is truly cosmopolitan and varied.  We might think of food culture like Luaus, Lomi-Lomi Salmon and Poi as typically Hawaiian, but all these foods came from somewhere else [3]

Every plant, tree and bird in Hawaii has come from somewhere remote. Even the Coconuts floated from thousands of miles away, and plants grew from the seeds of flowers carried by birds.

Over centuries these islands have drawn waves of human migrants as well, from the Polynesians in their canoes bringing Taro, Bananas and dogs.

The early Polynesian settlers, would eventually become Hawaiian royalty, to be foll;owed by other waves: Whalers, sandalwood traders, missionaries, sugar traders and cattle ranchers, traders and laborers from China, Japan, Korea, Samoa, Portugal and the Philippines. [4]

Economically, Taro and Fish were replaced by Sugar, Pineapple and Beef.

The hereditary Polynesian ruling caste were replaced by a semi-hereditary ruling caste of white bankers and traders.

In the 20th century came soldiers, sailors, tourists.

From the days of Captain Cook to Pearl Harbor, the population of the islands increased by only a third, but it become very diverse culturally.

Even Spam, always very popular in Hawaii, is no more an intruder than many other foods we think of as typically Hawaiian, like Pineapple or Coconut.  They are all arrivals brought by seafarers over the centuries as Honolulu became what Maugham called “the meeting place of East and West.” [5]

Main Influences: The origin of Hawaiian cuisine was the Polynesian, followed by New England or missionary influence, to which were added elements from China, Japan, Korea, Samoa, Portugal, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.  In recent years influences from other parts of Asia, Europe and North America have continued to add to the mix. [6]

Major Ingredients: Some Vegetables that are typical ingredients of Hawaiian cuisine — Arrowroot (Pia), Breadfruit, Candlenut (Kukui), Coconut, Jicama, Macademia, Taro, Ti and Wing Beans.  In addition, virtually all the vegetables of the Temperate Zone have been introduced. [7]

 Fruits include Pineapple and Sugarcane, as well as Mangoes, Papayas, and a wide range of the fruits of Southeast Asia which have been acclimated. Grapes and Apples arrived early in the 19th century. Bananas are often baked at picnics.


Papaya Plant











Meats include Pork, Beef, Chicken and all domesticated poultry  — Ducks, Geese, Turkeys. Beef Heart appears as an ingredient in a barbecue, Anticuchos, an unusual Okinawan-Peruvian item.

Cooking with Spam


Spam is considered a major meat, almost a food group in its own right.

Fish and Sea Food:
Hawaiian waters provide a huge variety of Sea Foods, including some kinds that favor tropical waters. The most important Fish is Tuna, together with Groupe (Hapuu}, Marlin, Monkfish (Opah), Pink Snapper (Opakapaka) and Red Snapper (Onaga), Swordfish (Shutome) and Wahoo (Ono).




Pink Snapper

Important Dishes: Teriyaki is the most popular way of cooking meats, including even Spam.

Other popular dishes

  • Kalua Pig — Pulled Pork with marinated steamed Cabbage, often roasted in an earth oven (imu)
  • King’s Hawaiian Bread — Originally Portuguese Sweet Bread, developed by the Japanese-American Taira family into a huge national brand, successful (and now baked) on the Mainland as King’s Hawaiian Bread

    King's Hawaiian Bread, an Island Specialty

    King’s Hawaiian Bread

  • Laulau –– Foods steamed in wrappers of Taro or Ti leaves — Pork, Fish, Chicken in various combinations
  • Loco Moco — Hamburger patties served with Gravy and topped with two Eggs
  • Lomi-Lomi Salmon — A kind of Poke made with high-quality Salmon cut in cubes, combed with Chili Pepper, Onions, Tomatoes in a kind fo salad-like mixture
  • Malasada — Portuguese style cruller deep-fried, coated with Sugar
  • Plate Lunch — An entree of Meat or Sea Food, two scoops of Rice and Macaroni Salad
  • Poke — Raw Fish cut into cubes and combined with seasonings like Kukui Nut, Scallions, Seaweed, Sea Salt. Popular snack for parties or with beer. . Smoked Salmon Poke is a good example..
  • Poi — Thick, sticky paste made from ground-up roots of Breadfruit, Plantain or especially Taro plant.  The staple of the early Polynesians.
  • Portuguese Sweet Bread — The model for King’s Hawaiian Bread.
  • Potted Pork Chops — Meaty pork chops made fragrant with handfuls of herbs, popular at barbecues; another Fusion dish.
  • Saimin — Noodle soup with various Meats or Dumplings added
  • Spam Musubi and other avatars of Spam include Spam Teriyaki
  • Spare Ribs Hawaiian Style — a Fusion approach with influences from several cultures.
  • Tiki Drunks and Dishes — Tiki restaurants and bars served food which is basically Cantonese with a fusion of Hawaiian ingredients to make it Tiki, plus a range of Tiki drinks. These are cocktails, usually Rum based, with fruit, like the Mai Tai, Blue Hawaiian and others, many originated by Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic in the era after World War II.  Another important drink is Okolehao, a strong spirit made from the roots of the Ti plant.  Rum, Beer and Wine are all produced locally.  Grapes have been grown in Hawaii since the early 19th century.
Kona Coffee, a Hawaiian Specialty

Kona Coffee

Kona Coffee — Coffee from the Kona Coast is among the world’s finest

Luaus and Poi: The Luau, an open-air barbecue and feast, has come to symbolize the Hawaiian life-style.  Actually the term Luau only came into use in the mid-19th century, replacing an earlier Polynesian barbecue feast.

At a Luau, young Taro tops baked with Coconut Milk and Chicken or Octopus was always served, as well as Pork (and in earlier Hawaii also dogs), typically a whole Pig, cooked in an earth oven called an imu.

In the imu, food is normally wrapped in Taro, Ginger, Banana or Ti leaves and baked in an oven lined with volcanic rocks.  Hot embers or coals are added, as well as coverings of leaves, mats and earth.  Water is sometimes added to create steam and the food cooks for several hours.

Besides the famous Pig, imu cooking included Vegetables, Fish and Chicken.  Some meats also might be roasted or barbecued on a spit.

And Luaus would include Squid, Hawaian Fried Rice, Fish dishes like Lomi-Lomi Salmon, Laulaus — dishes wrapped in leaves and steamed, plus a variety of Fruits.

Other meats might include Spare Ribs, Hawaiian style, made with ingredients  like Chinese Wine, Five Spices Powder and Honey. Another popular meat dish is the traditional  Kalua Pig.

In modern times, the dogs are omitted from the menu. Some typical vegetable dishes might include Roasted Tomatoes, and Cold Sweet and Sour Radishes.  Cakes and other desserts with a Western element would be added as well. Macadamia Lace Cookies are popular, also Caramelized Orange Slices and Grilled Pineapple.

Poi: Grayish or purplish-gray in color, and bland in taste, Poi was the staple food of the early Polynesian inhabitants of Hawaii. They are said to have eaten as much as ten to 15 pounds of it a day.  Poi is still served at Luaus and some restaurants.

There are basically three varieties: one-finger, two-finger and three-finger, referring to its thickness or viscosity.  The one-finger variety is thick enough to that a mouthful will cling to one finger when inserted and twirled expertly in the pot.  The two-finger variety is thinner, and the three-finger version the thinnest of all.

Today it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a spoon at the Luau or restaurant where Poi appears.

Modern Hawaiian Cuisine: Cooking in Hawaii has evolved to a high level, incorporating elements from many regions of the Pacific Rim and beyond, with many innovative dishes.

Apart from elegant creations served at fancy restaurants, dishes popular among local families include many with Asian and Pacific inspiration as well as many others with strong Mainland American flavor, often New England in origin. We might call these the Upper Missionary or Old Haole cooking style. Another example would be Hawaiian Raspberry Ribbon Pie.

A similar dessert, using a local fruit, is Mango Ice Cream.

A similar dish is Hawaiian Potted Pork Chops. These might be served at a picnic with dishes like Anticuchos and Baked Bananas.

In dining at Hawaiian restaurants where locals go, in private homes, and at places like church suppers, it is often possible to identify two or three definite culinary traditions in a single meal.

The way Hawaiians cook and eat today basically reflects three main distinct waves of settlement – the original Polynesian seafaring settlers Europeans who began arriving in the 18th century; and the Chinese, Japanese and other Asian arrivals who came later.;

Although many popular dishes are usually good, it is sometimes hard to find much of a Pacific element in many of the favorites.

Many of these old Haole dishes are worth trying in their own right, though it is sometimes difficult to identify the Pacific Rim strain. Thus there is a Hawaiian Style Chicken which features Grapes as a key ingredient.  And there is a Molded Seafood Salad that revolves around Canned Tomato Soup.

There is a casserole based on Barley, the whole category of Spam preparations and a pie which depends on Raspberry Jello. And there’s a dessert that depends not just on fresh Bananas but on Banana Liqueur. Another transplant is the kiddies’ favorite Broken Glass Torte.

Here;s a recipe from a Kamaiina relative for Apple Pie. It does have a Hawaiian flavor, if you count the Macadamic Nuts, which like everything else came from somewhere else — in this case Australia.

Macadamia trees were first introduced in the 19th century and planted as wind-brakes for the Sugar field, before their nuts became popular.

Lychee Jubilee, in which the Litchi fruit is flamed with liquor and poured over desserts, is another old Kamai’ina favor.

Although Apple Pie may not sound terribly Hawaiian, in fact the Ohia or native wild Apple is an important local fruit. In the 1870s, the Ohia forest in Koolau in Maui was considered the largest Apple orchard in the world, so maybe Apples may be considered a Hawaiian fruit, too.

Apple Torte, Hawaiian Style

Hawaiian Apple Torte
with Macadamia Nuts


1 egg
¾ cup Sugar
½ cup Flour
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
½ teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Almond Extract
1 cup freshly chopped Apple
½ cup Macadamia Nuts
Whipped Cream for Topping


We first prepare an 8-inch baking pan.  We heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  We core and peel 1or 2 Apples and chop rather finely, enough to make 1 cup full.

We next beat the Egg and add the Sugar to the Egg, beating well.  We sift in the Flour, Baking Powder and Salt and combine well, then we add the Almond Extract. We add in the chopped Apple, combine well and turn into the baking pan.  We bake for about 35 minutes at 350 degrees.

While the torte is baking, we can chop the Macadamia Nuts coarsely and prepare the Whipped Cream.

After the torte is baked, we cool it on a wire rack and when cool, place on a plate and top with the Whipped Cream and finish by sprinkling  the Macadamia Nut bits on top.[8]

For Further Information:

[1] Genevieve Taggard, “The Luau,” from Origin: Hawaii (Honolulu: Donald Angus, 1947). —   http://www.amazon.com/Origin-Hawaii-Genevieve-Taggard/dp/B0007F4J46
[2] Henry M. Whitney, The Hawaiian Guide Book, Containing a brief description of the Hawaiian Islands, their harbors, agricultural resources, plantations, scenery, volcanoes, climate, population and commerce, first edition (Honolulu: Henry M. Whitney, 1875) —  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Martyn_Whitney
[3] “Cuisine of Hawaii,” article, Wikipedia, with a good review of dishes, ingredients, historical factors and research sources —   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_Hawaii
[4] Douglas L. Oliver, The Pacific Islands (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962) —  http://www.amazon.com/The-Pacific-Islands-Douglas-Oliver/dp/0824812336
[5] W. Somerset Maugham, “Honolulu,” from Trembling of a Leaf (New York: Doubleday, 1921) —  http://www.amazon.com/Trembling-Leaf-W-Somerset-Maugham/dp/0935180214
[6] Mary Sarton, “Sukiyaki on the Kona Coast,” in The Reporter, June 27 1957, for a description of one of the layered elements. —  http://www.loa.org/volume.jsp?RequestID=303&section=toc
[7] “Cuisine of Hawaii,” article, Wikipedia, for detailed description of ingredients, historical trends and documentation.
[8] For more information on Hawaiian cuisine, including recipes —
Katherine Bazore, Hawaiian and Pacific Foods (New York: M. Barrow, 1940)  —  http://www.amazon.com/Hawaiian-Pacific-Foods-Katherine-Bazore/dp/B000PRT8YM
Carey D. Miller, Katherine Bazore and Ruth C. Robbins, Some Fruits of Hawaii (Honolulu: Hawaii Agricultural Experimental Station, 1936) —  http://books.google.com/books/about/Some_Fruits_of_Hawaii.html?id=qPcQpIO0KPsC
Elizabeth Ann Toupin, Hawaii Cookbook and Backyard Luau (Norwalk, Conn: Silvermine, 1967) —  http://www.amazon.com/Hawaii-Cookbook-Backyard-Elizabeth-Toupin/dp/B0011UBB3S
Some online recipe sources — All Recipes.com – Hawaiian —  http://allrecipes.com/recipes/usa-regional-and-ethnic/west-coast/hawaii/






19 thoughts on “Hawaiian Cuisine

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