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Food Etiquette In Hawaii

Learn these unique and fun Hawaii food (and dining) etiquette tips. From chopsticks etiquette to potlucks, your next visit to Hawaii will be much more rewarding!

Graphic with the words: "Food Etiquette in Hawaii."

Food etiquette should fun and helpful, never intimidating.

Hawaii is a special and very unique place. And with that, we have our own set of common etiquette tips. I hope this comes in handy! None of these are exotic rules. Most are common sense. They all revolve around food and dining.

Note from a Local: Because we have a large Asian population, many of these etiquette tips also apply in Asia.

Chopsticks

We use chopsticks often (for all kinds of food!) in Hawaii.

Do Not
Do not stick your chopstick directly in the rice bowl (standing up). This is considered rude and also very bad luck.

Do
Instead, set your chopsticks across your bowl or plate (along the rim). Or place it in the chopstick rest next to your bowl or plate. You want the chopsticks to rest parallel to the table, not perpendicular.

Serve Others

Hawaii is family oriented and we often have big family dinners served…family style! Think three generations of family for Sunday night dinner at home or Friday night out at a restaurant. Either way this means big plates of food places in the center of the table (or on a lazy susan).

Do Not
Do not serve yourself first. There will be many dishes placed at the center of the table. No matter how hungry you are, do not dive in and load up your plate first. This is bad manners, especially if you didn’t help prepare dinner.

Do
If someone encourages you to “go first”, the right thing to do is serve the oldest person (usually both grandma and grandpa) at the table first. Then serve yourself.

Or you can offer to serve everyone. It’s more work but people will be like, woooow so good manners. But usually you can serve the *oldest, then yourself, and then pass the serving utensils to the person next to you (might be your cousin or sibling, etc).

*If you’re serving one grandparent, then you should serve both.

The Potluck Exception

We are big on potlucks and garage parties in Hawaii. Because these are more casual affairs and often much larger, the serving others rule doesn’t have to apply here (though I still think you should always help prepare grandma and grandpa’s potluck plate).

Do Not
Do not rush to the front of the potluck line. Just not a great look. Let older people go up first. Also do not waste food. Eat what you take.

Do
Fill your plate up good! We love to eat and potlucks are a big and fun celebration of eating. Also feel free to go up for seconds and thirds…that just means you really like the food.

Note from a Local: I grew up in Hawaii with the idea of it being ok to go for seconds and thirds. It wasn’t until I spent more time in France that I learned that going for seconds and thirds of your cheese plate is very bad manners. I was told I should decide exactly how much cheese I want to eat ahead of time and take only that. o_O

Chopsticks

Do Not
Do not use your personal chopsticks to serve yourself (or others) second helpings.

Do
If you’re a host, include an extra pair of “sharing chopsticks” for each dish. That way your guests can use those chopsticks to get food.

If you’re a guest, make sure to use those “sharing chopsticks.” If your host didn’t already lay them out, just ask nicely for an extra set of chopsticks for serving. Or you can turn your chopsticks around and use the other (clean) end to serve food.

If you’re at a restaurant, kindly ask the serve for an extra set of serving utensils (chopsticks, fork, spoons, etc).

Bring A Gift (And Remove Shoes)

Did a friend invite you over to their home for dinner? Lucky you! Nothing beats Hawaii hospitality and home cooking.

Do Not
Do not come empty handed.

Do
Bring a gift. Doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive. The gift is a thoughtful touch and a small thank you for the invitation. It’s a way to show appreciation.

Bring a bottle of wine, a great pie or cake (we have many great dessert places in Hawaii), or an appetizer (think fresh poke or beautiful sashimi). No need to stress too hard about it ^_^

Note from a Local: Always remove your shoes when entering someone’s home. If they say, “oh no, it’s ok to keep your shoes on,” then it’s ok to keep it on. But the default assumption is definitely to remove your shoes.

Plate Lunch

Local food is not diet food.

Do Not
Don’t assume your plate lunch will come with *salad or any sort of greens. The only “salad” that exists on a traditional plate lunch is mac salad. We love carbs, meats, and sweets in Hawaii. We have amazing produce and vegetables in Hawaii but salads are not really a thing.

*Many fancier/modern plate lunch spots give the option of replacing mac salad with green salad. But man it would be a shame to leave Hawaii without enjoying mac salad.

Do
Order some veggies on the side.

Plastic Bags

Hawaii was the first state in the US to ban plastic bags.

Do Not
Don’t expect your purchase to come with a plastic bag. If you want a bag (it will be a paper bag), there will be a small surcharge (usually around $.25).

Do
Bring your own bag. Many people keep reusable bags and tote bags in their car trunk. We use this for everything from grocery shopping to picking up takeout food orders.

Clean Up

Always leave a place nicer than when you found it.

Do Not
Do not leave trash lying around. Empty food containers, utensils, soda cans, water bottles, etc. We see it on the beach, in the parks, and on hiking trails all the time. It is heartbreaking. Why would anyone want to come to such a beautiful place and do this?

Do
Clean up after yourself. It’s common sense.

Try It (Or Politely Pass)

One of the best parts about food in Hawaii is the diversity of food! From Chinese to Hawaiian, Japanese to Korean and Filipino and Portuguese and SO much more, you can live in Hawaii for a lifetime and still not explore all the food offered here.

Do Not
Do not immediately assume that something won’t be delicious. You never know till you try.

If you really don’t want to eat something, then don’t. Politely pass. No need to make a funny face or crack an insulting joke…no one benefits from that.

Do
Do try it! There is nothing to lose. What is the point of living (and traveling all the way to Hawaii) if not to explore and learn and eat. If you don’t like something you never have to eat it again. But at least you tried it.

Mainly, just enjoy the food here ^_^

Jasmine

Friday 14th of May 2021

Mahalo nui loa for this post! I like the Hawaiian community element to dining with others. The food is meant to be enjoyed fully, but please keep your chopsticks to yourself... just not sticking straight up.

Maura

Thursday 15th of April 2021

Hi Kathy! I use your Portuguese Bean Soup recipe all the time and was looking for a good veggie stir fry recipe. Another pet peeve I have is people using their personal chopsticks to take seconds. I know this is acceptable in Asia but in this age of COVID, it is a custom that should be stopped. I always put out serving spoons or if at a restaurant, ask for extra chopsticks for serving. I hope you're doing well! (I'm Alicia's mom - she's doing great)

Kathy

Thursday 15th of April 2021

Hi Mrs. Yee! So happy you like the Portuguese Bean Soup recipe :) Super good point about the chopsticks, I totally agree. Will add that to the list! Hope all is well and glad Alicia is doing great! - Kathy

Alan

Sunday 4th of April 2021

Hey, this proves that great minds think alike!! Great post! Your advice on potlucks brings another potluck thing to mind. I hate it when somebody brings only a (small) bag of potato chips as their contribution to the potluck. Or when they bring a pack of uncooked hotdogs. Or the freaking family with 8 kids who brings 1/2 pound of fried chicken fingers that they got from the supermarket deli!! Sheesh!! Here where I live, there is a "Hawaiian Club". My late wife and I used to be members but got sick and tired of us always bringing a whole roasted turkey, or 10 pounds of beef pot roast, or maybe a 12 quart pot of chili with beans, and other moochers just bring those little things -- so we quit. We are/were not vindictive or selfish people, but we just got tired of being taken advantage of. Sometimes those same moochers would bring the pint size container of supermarket potato salad to the potluck too!

Jeanne

Wednesday 7th of April 2021

And these people NEVER host.

Love this article. It's a handy guide especially for a new non-asian significant other. Interesting about the cheese plate. I guess because cheese is expensive. I dunno, I guess Food=Love in my book.

Kathy

Sunday 4th of April 2021

Hi Alan! Ahahah there is *always* that one person! I think everyone will know exactly what you are talking about lololol. All too familiar with that pint size container of potato salad...not even mac salad ^_^ - Kathy