There are many layers to the history of Hawaii, all of which have contributed in some way or another to the types of food you will find in Hawaii today. A multi-cultural heritage and the availability of fresh fish, fruits and produce make Hawaii a delicious place to explore. Sweet treats, like coco puffs and malasadas have been enjoyed by generations of island keiki. And then, there’s SPAM. A visit to the islands wouldn’t be complete without at least a taste.
Here is our list of things you MUST try when you visit the islands:
SPAM MusubiMost people really can’t understand it, unless they’ve tried it. (And perhaps not even then!) But in my experience, many a convert has been made after trying this popular local snack. Readily available at convenience stores and at most family gatherings, potlucks, or picnics, SPAM musubi is made by setting a fried slice of SPAM (often marinaded in shoyu-sugar) atop a block of rice, then wrapping the whole thing in a sheet of nori (seaweed) for a portable snack.
>> More about Hawaii’s love affair with SPAM.
Being surrounded by miles of ocean, it may come as no surprise that Hawaiians were great fisherman. To this day, some of our most popular local specialties take advantage of the fresh fish that we have available here in the islands, especially ahi tuna. Pronounced “poh-kay,” this dish consists of raw cubes of ahi, usually seasoned with ingredients like shoyu (soy sauce), sesame oil, limu (seaweed), kukui nut, coarse Hawaiian salt, and green onions. Hundreds of varieties exist though, so be sure to sample some at the grocery store’s seafood counter or various restaurants or take out spots.
>> For the freshest seafood in Hawaii, take a trip to the Honolulu Fish Auction.
MalasadasIf you’re watching your waistline, you’ll be completely missing out on many of the items on this list, and malasadas are no exception. These popular doughnuts are made by deep frying a ball of Portuguese sweet bread dough, then rolling them in granulated sugar. Sometimes they’re filled with custard, chocolate, or other flavors, and instead of traditional plain sugar, you can also try them rolled in cinnamon-sugar or li hing powder. (But why mess with tradition?) The most popular spot for malsadas is Leonards Bakery on Kapahulu Avenue in Honolulu, just a few minutes outside of Waikiki, although many bakeries will have their own version.
>> Learn about Malasada Day in Hawaii.
Coco PuffsIt’s worth the drive out to the little neighborhood of Kalihi to seek out the famous cocoa-filled cream puff known as a Liliha Bakery Coco Puff. A pastry shell is filled with a light chocolate pudding mixture (delicious even on its own) and then topped with their buttery, sugary chantilly frosting. These desserts are so famous that the bakery churns out between 5,000 to 7,000 per day! They were even recently featured on an episode of Hawaii Five-0.
Solar Powered Beer
What better way to harness the sun’s energy than to use it for brewing up quality island beers? Kona Brewing Company on the Big Island of Hawaii does just that, producing a wide selection of beers including the popular Longboard Lager and seasonal favorites like Waialua Wheat. If you’re in Kona (Big Island) or Hawaii Kai (Oahu) you can also visit their popular brewpubs for some tasty pupus (appetizers) to go with your favorite beer.
>> More about Kona Brewing Company.
Shave IceEveryone has their favorite Shave Ice stand and new ones are cropping up all the time, although the epic battle is usually between Matsumoto’s and Waiola Shave Ice. Some will contest that the ice is shaved finer at Waiola, yet there is something so perfect about topping off a day spent driving around the north shore with a visit to Matsumoto’s on your way back to town. Wherever you go, you’ll be able to try your favorite combination of syrup flavors. Classics like strawberry, grape, or lemon are always popular, or you can sample tropical favorites like lychee, pineapple, or li hing. To even further complicate things, you can choose to get your shave ice with or without ice cream in the bottom of the cone and sometimes toppings like condensed milk, adzuki beans, or mochi balls.
>> More about Hawaiian Shave Ice.
PoiMany of the items on this list are contemporary favorites, however poi is just about as traditional as you can get. Most visitors will only get a taste of this starchy staple of the Hawaiian diet if they visit a luau, however there are many people who enjoy poi here on a daily basis. Poi is made by steaming the corm of the kalo (taro) plant, then pounding it by hand into a paste called pa’i'ai. Mixed with a little water, this paste is then turned into poi. The gooey consistency can sometimes be a turn-off, and the flavor can be an acquired taste. In recent years there has been a great movement to bring kalo and poi back into local diets, as it is ironic that we import the rice which is the staple for most Hawaiians today, when we have the ability to grow kalo here in the islands.
>> Read more about Traditional Hawaiian Food.
North Shore Shrimp TrucksIf you’re spending any amount of time on Oahu’s north shore, a popular lunch stop is to try one of the shrimp trucks on Kamehameha Highway between Haleiwa and Kahuku. This is another case where every local has their favorite truck, so ask around before you decide on which to try. Most serve a variation on a “plate lunch” with two scoops of rice and about a dozen shrimp. Some offer salad or pineapple on the side, others just heap on the garlic and let you go at it.
>> Read our comparison of four popular North Shore Shrimp Trucks.
Just a few miles up the slopes of Mt. Hualalai on the Big Island lies a region known as the Kona Coffee Belt. Similar to how only sparkling wine grown in the Champagne region of France can be called champagne, only coffee grown in this stretch of land two miles wide by 20 miles long can be called Kona Coffee. The most popular way to enjoy a cup of Kona is in a medium roast – it’s said to best bring out the flavor profile. Kona Coffee is one of the most popular items to take back as gifts for friends and family because of the care put into bringing you the best coffee possible.
>> Learn how to take a day trip through Kona Coffee Country.
What are YOUR favorite foods from Hawaii? Would you add something to this “must try” bucket list? Leave us a comment to let us know!