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The Cuisine of Hawai'i

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TasunkaWitko View Drop Down
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    Posted: 14 April 2010 at 13:21
i found this while doing an internet search and it looks like it would make an interesting addition to the knowledge base on hawaiian cuisine.
Foods of the World

Final Paper

Edward Huyer

The Cuisine of Hawai’i 


      Hawai’i.  The name conjures images of tropical paradise and sun-drenched, palm-lined beaches.  And indeed, Hawai’i has far more than its fair share of these assets.  What is less likely to come to mind is the food of the Hawaiian Islands.  This is, in my opinion, a terrible shame.  The Islands, especially in modern times, are a crossroads of cultures from around the Pacific Ocean.  At the same time (and in seeming contradiction to my first statement), the Hawaiian Islands have historically been difficult to access due to their location in the middle of the Pacific.

      As a result, wany different cultures have traveled to the Islands, but their relative isolation has forced them to adapt and make use primarily of ingredients that are easily produced locally or cheaply imported from Asia and the Americas.  This has given the Hawaiian Islands a unique cuisine that shows many strong (and sometimes surprising) influences from other cultures but nevertheless remains particular to Hawai’i.

      To fully understand Hawaiian cuisine, you need at least a basic understanding of Hawaiian geography and history.  This is true of any cuisine, but it is especially true of Hawai’i due to its unique location.

Geography and Climate

      Hawai’i is an isolated archipelago over 2000 miles from the closest continental landmass.  It consists of a chain of volcanic islands and atolls, with eight major islands (seven of which are populated).  With the exception of Mauna Loa and Kīlauea on Hawai’i proper (aka The Big Island), all the surface-level volcanoes in the chain are dormant or extinct.

      Hawai’i lies in the tropics, somewhat north of the equator and near the center of the Pacific Ocean.  The climate is unusual for two reasons.  First, it is considerably milder than most tropical regions due to the mitigating influences of the ocean, with an overall climate more sub-tropical than tropical.  Second, the actual climate varies considerably depending on the location.  Temperature and especially rainfall varies significantly depending on altitude and location on the island relative to trade winds.  Snow even falls during winter months on some of the upper slopes of the Big Island.  This mildness and variety of climates allows long growing seasons for a wide variety of agricultural products.


      The aboriginal population of Hawai’i is Polynesian.  The Islands mark the northern corner of the triangle that denotes Polynesia, in fact.  These “original” Hawaiians likely made the trip from the other Polynesian islands, over 1000 miles away, in dugout catamarans in which they carried the basic requirements for settlement.  These supplies would’ve included agriculture supplies to cultivate, such as chickens, pigs, bananas, taro, and breadfruit.  These ingredients, particularly pork and taro, remain staples of Hawaiian food to this day.  Estimates put their arrival date on the Big Island around 400 or 500 AD.  The aboriginal Hawaiians were subjugated by larger, stronger Tahitians around AD 1000, and are now essentially unknown as an independent ethnicity.

      Fast forward to 1777.  Captain James Cook becomes the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands.  He is later killed by the Hawaiian people as the result of little more than misunderstanding and misfortune.  Nevertheless, Hawai’i is opened to Western influence.  Its central location in the Pacific makes it a popular location to re-provision for European and American ships, and the “heathen” Hawaiians became the subject of Christian missionary missions.  This influence eventually brought Western agricultural products to the Islands, including cattle.  It also brought Asian peoples, particularly Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino, to work sugar and other plantations on the Islands.  These immigrants of course brought their own foods and cooking techniques to the Islands.

      Jumping ahead again, this time to the Second World War, we find the most surprising foodstuff found in modern Hawaiian cuisine:  SPAM.  SPAM was brought by the American military during World War II, and quickly became popular due to being a cheap and readily available meat in a place where food in general, and meat in particular, is expensive.  This has resulted in SPAM being incorporated in a wide variety of popular regional dishes.

Polynesian Influences

      As stated, the native Hawaiian people are Polynesian in descent, and many staple foods derive from that ancestry.  Taro, a common root vegetable in tropical climes, is popular for its nutritional value and relative ease of cultivation.  By far the most common use of Taro is to make poi, a wet paste of cooked and mashed taro corm eaten either alone or as a side dish.  The flavor is reputed to start sweet, but gradually sour as days pass and the poi ferments due to the action of harmless bacteria.  My personal experience is that poi is extraordinarily bland, but this may be due to having only sampled frozen poi (which reputedly loses much of its flavor).

      Historically, poi had both spiritual and nutritive components.  The native Hawaiians believed that taro was the original descendent of the Hawaiian people, and that the Hawaiian ancestor spirit Hāloa was present when the poi was uncovered during the meal.

      With the warm, wet climate available, tropical and subtropical fruits are common.  These include coconuts, breadfruit, and bananas.

      Seafood is also common, for obvious reasons.  In particular, mussels, mahimahi (dolphin fish or dorado), mullet, and tuna.

      Pigs, being one of the first mammals to be transported to the Islands, are one of the primary sources of non-seafood meat protein in Hawai’i.  The most famous and distinctly Hawaiian method of cooking pork is kalua (literally “to cook in an underground oven”) pig.  In kalua cooking, a hole in the ground (the imu, or underground oven) is filled with hot rocks, which are then covered with banana leaves, followed by a whole salted pig, and more banana leaves.  This results in a tender, uniquely flavorful pork dish.

Japanese and Chinese Influence

      Both Japanese and Chinese cultures have had a major influence on Hawaiian cuisine.  Rice has become a major staple in modern-day Hawai’i, and the introduction of soybeans and related products has opened a variety of interesting food variants.

      The introduction of rice allows for a number of interesting food variants.  One common item is the plate lunch.  The classic plate lunch consists of two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and some kind of meat.  The exact variety of meat varies dramatically, ranging from a seemingly mundane American hamburger patty to Japanese teriyaki to Korean kim chee.

      A variation on the plate lunch entirely unique to Hawai’i is the loco moco plate.  This peculiar but delicious combination consists of a couple scoops of rice, a hamburger patty, brown gravy, and a fried egg.  The dish, which makes an excellent breakfast in my opinion, appears to have originated in 1949 at the Lincoln Grill owned by the Inouye family in Hilo, Hawai’i.

      Soy and other ingredients also allowed for the creation of poke, a kind of fish salad slightly similar to Ceviche.  Poke is made by taking sliced or cubed raw fish, typically Ahi (yellowtail tuna), and mixing in soy sauce, green onions, sesame seeds, and sesame oil.  Hawaiian cuisine is constantly in flux, however, so the precise ingredients are not always the same.  It’s worth noting that, unlike Ceviche, the fish in poke is not chemically “cooked” by the other ingredients.  Perhaps drawing on the Japanese tradition of sashimi, the fish remains raw.

American Influences

      The most notable, and surprising, influence to come to Hawai’i from America is the introduction of SPAM.  While widely derided in many places with easier access to fresh meat, SPAM is immensely popular in Hawai’i.  So popular is SPAM that Hawai’i and Guam are the only places in the world in which McDonalds puts SPAM on their menu.

      The way in which SPAM has been included in the cuisine of Hawai’i is a wonderful example of the integration of other cultural influences that occurs on the Islands.  An immensely popular variant is SPAM musubi.  The making of SPAM musubi is the essence of simplicity: a slice of cooked SPAM attached to a block of Japanese sushi rice with nori (dried seaweed).  This odd (to traditional American thought) combination of American and Japanese influences is an immensely popular soul food in Hawai’i.


      As you can see, Hawaiian cuisine is an incredible mixture of many cultural foods.  The reliance on rice, taro, fruit, and fish results in a generally very healthy diet and the cultural influence create a wide variety of available flavors.  It is truly unfortunate that more Hawaiian foods are not available in the United States.



      Finding references on Hawaiian cuisine was quite difficult.  As a result, I was forced to rely primarily on Internet sources, particularly the Wikipedia, and personal experience.  I would have preferred more book sources, as the information on Wikipedia was spotty and is not certain to be reliable.  Unfortunately, books on Hawaiian cuisine simply didn’t exist in the RIT library. 

Barnes, P.  (1999). A Concise History of the Hawaiian Islands. Hilo, Hawai’i:

      Petroglyph Press, Ltd. 

Anusasananan, L. L.  (1996). Hawaii's favorite fish salad. Menlo Park, California:


Wikipedia.  (2006). Hawaii. Retrieved May 1, 2006,


Wikipedia.  (2006). Hawaii (island).  Retrieved May 1, 2006,


Wikipedia.  (2006). Cuisine of Hawaii. Retrieved May 1, 2006,


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Margi Cintrano View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Margi Cintrano Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 December 2012 at 13:44
Interesting historical profile. Thanks for posting.
I spent my 2nd honeymoon on the island of Kaui, in Popu Beach, at the Sheraton Hotel. It was a paradise. Small world, Dan Gone Fishin spent his 1st honeymoon at exactly the same place !
What I recall most, was a lovely place chockful of local bars and eateries called, The Plantation, and the fresh just perfectly ripe Rose Red Papaya, we were served for breakfast with fresh lime. It was truly heavenly.
Funny, what we remember!
Lovely island.
Downtown Honolulu, was quite full of cement, and could of been downtown anywhere.
We had a couple of days over in Maui, however, it was raining, so we were lucky and returned to Kaui where the sun, and the royal bright blue Pacific were awaiting. The interesting geological feature, were the sands.  They were a very icy pale salmon color, verses the sandy off white of the Caribbean Island beaches. Very different in texture too. The Popu Beach sands were not as salty fine as the Caribe however, they glistened this gorgeous apricot hue, and one could note, the tiniest pebbly effect.
Very memorable,
Volamos a Mediterraneo, un paraiso que conquista su gente u su cocina.
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