One of the highlights of Hawaii is the many varieties of traditional Hawaiian food available. The states rich history of people from around the world adding culinary twists from wherever they departed before arriving on Hawaii’s shores makes their food truly unique. Over centuries what has been created is as diverse a dining experience as you will find anywhere. If your idea of Hawaiian food is pizza (Or anything for that matter) with a slice of pineapple on it, or just poi, which while traditional is not to everyone’s taste, hold on to your hats and get out your pens for some real authentic Hawaiian dining delights.
Something to remember when considering Hawaiian food is it’s role in society. Hawaii is known for it’s pineapples, mangoes, macadamia and kukui nuts, as well as it’s seafood. All are a part of most daily meals, however they are also integral industries that at one time supported the island prior to tourism, none more than pineapple. Also Hawaiians take their meals seriously. They view each meal as a gift and a time for sharing with family and friends. Arguments are to be left outside and aloha is the mood of the table. Oftentimes many of the senior Hawaiians do not even want to discuss business at the table and prefer instead to use the time to keep current with other aspects of the lives of the people sharing their table.
A particular favorite has always been Lau-Lau which never disappoints. The way it is prepared is by stuffing a pork shoulder with chicken and/or a vegetable filling. Sometimes butter-fish or whatever catch of the day you prefer is added to create a different flavor, and of course Hawaiian or kosher salt really tops it off well. The filling is then individually wrapped and tied in five taro leaves. The lau lau is then further wrapped and tied inside 2 ti-leaves. If you cannot get ti-leaves or just prefer not to use them as they are not edible, banana or spinach leaves work just as well and add a little bit of a flavor twist. The best, and only way to cook these according to traditionalists, are in an imu, which is an underground oven, hanging around in the backyard. Pressure cooking works almost as well as not everyone has an imu. The variety of natural flavors from the leaves and natural ingredients make this something that will dance on the tip of your tongue.
Perhaps the best known Hawaiian food is called Kalua pig or Kalua pork. This is usually the main course of all Hawaiian luau’s. Like Lau-Lau, it is best prepared in an imu, but you can prepare it other ways as well, just know that it won’t have that smoky flavor without an artificial additive. When preparing this it is good to remember to pierce the pork with a fork or knife to allow the flavor to seep in, and this should be cooked fat side up to allow the fat to drip down the sides of pork. It is tender and juicy and and melts in your mouth when properly prepared. Kalua pig has a distinct salty/smoky flavor that is hard to not fall in love with.
Lomi Salmon is a traditional, but not native Hawaiian seafood dish consisting of salted diced or cubed salmon with tomatoes, green onions, lemon juice, and crushed ice. If you like it spicy Tabasco sauce can certainly kick this up a notch without destroying the natural flavor. Lomi is a food that complements poi which makes it a mainstay at all luau’s. Usually it is served as a spread with crackers, however it is also excellent when stuffed in tomatoes or inside cherries. This is an addictive side that will keep you going back for more. Its great flavor and ease of preparation make this a very popular dish aside from it’s historical significance as a substitute for the fish kumu, which ancient Hawaiians used as an offering to the gods. Just be warned not to fill up on this, once you start diving into the Lomi it’s hard to stop.
Poi has been a staple food in Hawaii for countless years. It is made from the root of the taro plant. Poi is produced by mashing the cooked taro into a gluey thick fluid. While mashing this, you add water to achieve the desired consistency which can range from a paste like substance which is most common, or to something a bit more fluid and soupy which is a bit less popular. If it looks like grits you are probably doing it right. It is an acquired taste for most, one I honestly never did acquire. Many native Hawaiians believed the spirit of Ha-loa was a present in poi which makes it so special in addition to having been for some a main source of nourishment in past centuries. Kalo was the original ancestor of the Hawaiian people and was to be revered, so poi was therefore considered sacred.
Another delight is Poki. This is raw fish salad almost always made with ahi which is yellow-fin tuna. This dish is flavored with kukui nuts, seaweed, soy sauce, and sesame oil although most people enjoy variations of seasonings. I myself like a little Tabasco. In fact, there are probably well over a hundred or so variations of Poki served throughout the islands as most towns
and restaurants generally have their own style of making this dish. Raw fish isn’t for everyone, but one taste is usually enough to make a convert out of anybody. The good thing about this dish is if you don’t like one style it is prepared in you may find one you do like the next day as it is a very diverse dish. This dish is always a great starter with any meal, and being a lover of Poki I encourage everyone to try as many variations as possible. This is so good in fact you may find yourself requesting a large order to serve as your entree.
What discussion of Hawaiian food would be complete without bringing up a traditional dessert? Hawaiian banana bars are simple and tasty and a favorite of dessert lovers of all ages. This treat consists of mashed bananas, chopped walnuts, vanilla extract, brown sugar, lemon juice and a dash of cinnamon. Once this is mixed you just bake it for a half hour, let is cool, and cut it into bars or blocks as you would a brownie, you can’t make it much simpler than that. Some people enjoy adding other ingredients like a little coconut or macadamia nuts instead of walnuts which is what makes this so popular, it’s ease in preparation and versatility. If you need a quick and easy dessert Hawaiian Ambrosia is the ultimate. Ambrosia is prepared in a large bowl, preferably a punch bowl. First add in about eight ounces of pineapple and about ten ounces of mandarin oranges. Then add shredded coconut, mini marshmallows, cool-whip, milk, and cherries. Chill for an hour and garnish with cherries and you’re all set. It is as tasty as it is easy and goes over great with kids which is why this is a luau staple.
There is so much variety in traditional Hawaiian food you will find trying to sample a bit of everything a highlight of each meal. Keep an open mind as to trying new things. Don’t make meal time a rushed event, but rather look upon it as a reward and another part of your Hawaiian experience. You may go to Hawaii for the sun and sand, but the food will make you want to keep coming back!