Hawaiian Food and Local Food are two completely different things. Many dishes that visitors call "Hawaiian" are actually "Local." People often mix-up or mash the two into a single category of food. Learn the difference and you'll discover another layer to our beautiful Hawaii.
Difference Between Hawaiian Food And Local Food
Ask any local what drives them crazy when it comes to mainland assumptions about food in Hawaii. They will likely say, people don't understand the difference between Hawaiian Food and Local Food.
Hawaiian Food is a specific type of food. Not every unique food found in Hawaii is automatically Hawaiian Food.
Here's the difference:
Think of Hawaiian Food the same way you think of Chinese food, Italian food, Japanese food, etc. It's the food of a specific ethnic group and culture. Hawaiian Food is the food of the native Hawaiians.
Examples of Hawaiian Food:
Poi, Kulolo, Haupia, Luau Stew, Lau Lau, and Kalua Pig.
Here are recipes to cook Hawaiian Food at home.
Local Food is a category of food unique to Hawaii. Local Food is from Hawaii. It is tied to a physical location (Hawaii) and not an ethnic group (Hawaiians).
Examples of Local Food:
Loco Moco, Spam Musubi, Manapua, Shave Ice, and Saimin.
Here are recipes to cook Local Food at home.
Local Food is the result of multiple ethnic groups living and growing together in Hawaii. It is a super ono combination of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino etc. food. Local Food is best represented by the Plate Lunch - all the cultures coexist on a single plate.
Because "Local" is a common word and can apply to any other place in the world, one way to make it more clear is to say, "Local Hawaii Food."
If you're not sure if it's Hawaiian Food or Local Food, the best solution is to say, "I had this delicious <name of dish> from Hawaii."
Hawaiian and "From Hawaii"
Hawaiian and Local often get mixed up or jumbled together. The confusion is understandable. You'll find Hawaiian Food and Local Food throughout Hawaii. And oftentimes you can find both types of food at the same place.
For example: visit Zippy's (a local diner chain in Hawaii) and you'll see both saimin (Local Food) and lau lau (Hawaiian Food) on the menu.
It is useful to know the difference in order to understand which dishes come from the Hawaiian culture (Hawaiian Food), and which were created as a result of being and living in the Hawaii (Local Food).
Both Hawaiian Food and Local Food are special to Hawaii. When people make extra effort to understand the difference it means so much to us ^_^
Mainly, we hope you enjoy the food in Hawaii!
The Same Applies To People
The same concept of Hawaiian and Local applies to people. Being from Hawaii doesn't mean that you are Hawaiian.
I am born and raised in Hawaii, but I am not Hawaiian because I don't have Hawaiian ancestry.
I am local (or as we say in Hawaii, kamaʻāina).
Note: When we visit the mainland, people assume we are Hawaiian because we are from Hawaii. All through college in NYC, many classmates knew me as that Hawaiian girl. Same goes for Chinese friends, Japanese friends, and even Hapa friends...when in fact none of us are Hawaiian. Most of us just let it slide. It's hard to get upset about a sincere mix-up.
Ethnicity, Not Geography
In Hawaii, we identify ourselves by ethnicity, not by geography.
Residents of California are Californians. Residents of New York are New Yorkers. This rule does not apply in Hawaii because Hawaiian is an ethnicity. Hawaiian is not a label that you get because you live in Hawaii.
Common ethnicities in Hawaii are: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, etc.
Some friends are, "third generation Japanese-Chinese." Others are "second generation Korean" or "fifth generation Chinese." These friends have had generations of parents and grandparents who were born and raised in Hawaii.
They are Local because they are from Hawaii but don't have Hawaiian ancestry.
Foods Get Hawaii-ized
You may already know this, but there is amazing Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino etc. food in Hawaii. The food here is delicious. It is also inviting and fun. Hawaii is my favorite place in the world to eat.
Pay attention and one very cool thing you will notice is that many ethnic foods in Hawaii have been "Hawaii-ized."
Korean food is not traditional Korean, but a Hawaii version of Korean. The ever popular Korean plate lunch is a good example of this.
Chinese food is Chinese, but it is far from traditional, and usually a bit sweeter. The giant and beloved manapuas of Hawaii evolved from Chinese char siu bao. The steamed Chinese siu mai evolved into pork hash after being adapted to the Hawaii palate.
All different ethnic cultures contributed their own foods and traditions. Instead of having one dominate, they grew and evolved together. The result? Super ono food in Hawaii ^_^
Tuesday 27th of December 2022
I came upon this blog today while checking my recipe for Chicken Long Rice. I am a California Haole who lived in Hawaii, (local kine in Kaneohe, Oahu not Kailua or something like that) for nine years. I've always been culturally sensitive, but I don't think I would have gotten as much out of this blog if I had never actually lived there. Hawai'i is a special place full of the mana ka 'aina that you can't begin to truly understand unless you do more than just visit. It is tempting to think I was Kama 'Aina (as my Foodland Maikahi Card said), and I gained amazing appreciation for that, but after 9 years I know I was really still malahini... but trying very hard and very appreciative of Hawaiian and local cultures. I'm proud to say that I was accepted into several Hawaiian homes, (as well as many local homes). Like all who have ever been truly touched by the spirit of aloha, Hawai'i will live in my heart forever. Hawai'i no ka oi.
Tuesday 18th of October 2022
This is one of the best descriptions of Hawaii food and Hawaiian food, thank you for posting! I can't even tell you how many times I've had the "Yes, I'm from Hawaii, but no, I'm not Hawaiian" convo. It's tricky because on the mainland many of the Hawaiian BBQ places are really plate lunch places that don't have Hawaiian food.
Wednesday 22nd of June 2022
Hi Kathy, This is great, thank you for the post! I love your website with all your insights to food and culture on the Islands - I use it to prep for Hawaii vacations and to reminisce and re-create foods after we return from paradise. I'm really looking forward to your Food Etiquette piece as well! Mahalo!
Tuesday 28th of June 2022
Thank you very much for the kind comment, Holly! I'm so happy the website is useful. Enjoy your next Hawaii vacation! :)
Monday 5th of April 2021
This is the first thing I have read (as well as have watched) that really broken down the food so well. I happened upon your site earlier today, I really enjoy reading about food, culture & the history of cuisines. I am thoroughly enjoying your insight, as well as your writing; it is a reminder of why I fell in love with the internet ago. I wish you much success and will be sharing with not only my fellow food nerds, but anyone I know who is traveling to Hawaii.
Sunday 11th of April 2021
Aloha Bianca - Thank you so much for the kind words, you made my day! I love discovering different food/travel blogs on the internet, and know exactly that super awesome feeling of discovering a new-to-me blog. Thank you so much and hope you make it to Hawaii soon :) - Kathy
Monday 5th of April 2021
I’m of Chinese, Portuguese, Hawaiian, German & Dutch ethnicity, born & raised in Hawaii. I consider myself a home chef and have been cooking for 57 years. I call my cooking Hawaiian Style cause I cook most ethnic dishes the way I was taught while living in Hawaii. Been living in Oregon for over 40 years now. So my recipes have evolved. Just finished cooking Bean. Veggies n Ham Soup. Ethnic Food? Ummmm. Hawaiian Style. Thanks for the clarification. 🤙🏼
Sunday 11th of April 2021
Aloha Kukona - Thank you for sharing! I love how all our recipes and cooking evolve depending where we are and what ingredients we have on hand. It all sounds super ono :) - Kathy