Scroll through for a glossary of common foods you'll find in Hawaii!
A few notes before you begin...
Hawaiian Food and Local Hawaii Food are two different things
Think of Hawaiian food the same way you think of Chinese food, Italian food, Japanese food, etc. It's the food of a single culture (not a place). Examples of Hawaiian food include poi, haupia, luau stew, lau lau, and kalua pig.
Local food is a type of food found in Hawaii. It's tied to a physical location (Hawaii) and not a culture (the Hawaiian culture). Examples of local food include loco moco, spam musubi, manapua, shave ice, and saimin.
Hawaii and Hawaiian
Hawaiian Food and Local Food often get mixed up or jumbled together. Totally understandable! You'll find both Hawaiian food and local food throughout Hawaii. For example: visit Zippy's and you'll find saimin (local food) and lau lau (Hawaiian food) on the menu.
It's helpful to know the difference so you can understand which dishes come from the Hawaiian culture (Hawaiian food), and which were created as a result of being/living in the Hawaii (local food).
Note: The same thing applies to people. Just because you are from Hawaii, it doesn't mean that you are Hawaiian. I am born and raised in Hawaii, but I'm not Hawaiian because I don't have Hawaiian ancestry. I am not Hawaiian, but I am local.
(Residents of California are Californians and residents of New York are New Yorkers, but this rule doesn't apply to Hawaii because Hawaiian is an ethnicity, and not a label you get because you live in Hawaii).
How foods get Hawaii-ized
You can find amazing, authentic Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Filipino food in Hawaii. But one thing you'll notice is how many ethnics foods in Hawaii have been Hawaii-ized. This is actually super cool.
Korean food is not traditional Korean, but a Hawaii version of Korean (Korean plate lunch is a good example of this). Chinese food is Chinese, but far from traditional, and usually sweeter (like how manapua came from char siu bao and pork hash came from siu mai), after being adapted to the Hawaii palate.
Hawaiian Food and Local Food
All the food items and ingredients mentioned below are common to Hawaii. They are a mix of both traditional Hawaiian items and local Hawaii items.
Butter Mochi (Local)
Think of Butter Mochi as Hawaii’s version of the blondie/brownie. It has a deep golden top, and is just a bit chewy and sweet. It's like vanilla butter cake crossed with mochi. Heavenly! Butter Mochi is usually baked in a 9×13 tray and cut into squares for snacking. It’s meant to be shared and eaten at room temperature. | See also: Mochi
Chili Pepper Water (Local)
Chili Pepper Water is Hawaii's answer to hot sauce! It's made from Hawaiian chili, garlic, sea salt, and vinegar. This is a super popular condiment you'll find at all local restaurants and supermarkets. Or you can make your own easily. Chili Pepper Water post here.
A dry Japanese seasoning made from a mix of seaweed, dried fish, sesame seeds, and much more. It comes in a bottle and you just shake it on/in anything you want to use it with. No need to cook furikake, it's ready to eat as-is. Furikake has so many uses! We sprinkle it on top of rice for a snack, use it to make furikake chex mix, furikake cookies (adds nice savory bit to the cookies), furikake salmon, and of course for Hawaiian Hurricane Popcorn.
Haupia is a traditional Hawaiian dessert. It's often referred to as "coconut pudding." It actually has a texture that's halfway between pudding and jelly, and best eaten with your fingers for dessert (or snack!) Haupia is served slightly chilled, and cut in small rectangles. Haupia has four main ingredients: coconut milk, sugar, cornstarch, and water. Click here for the traditional haupia recipe and here for an updated haupia recipe made with agar agar instead of cornstarch (which I personally prefer ^_^)
Hawaiian Hurricane Popcorn (Local)
It's just popcorn, hot and fresh. Tossed with melted butter. And lots of furikake. And kakimochi (which also goes by the name “arare” and “mochi crunch”). It looks like a hurricane. A Hawaiian hurricane. Hurricane Popcorn post here.
Tiny, super crunchy Japanese crackers made from mochi/glutinous rice and seasoned with shoyu/soy sauce. Kakimochi also goes by the name “arare” and “mochi crunch." You can snack on them plain or mix the into other things, like Hawaiian Hurricane Popcorn.
Kulolo is a Hawaiian dessert made out of taro, coconut, and sugar. It has a texture like pudding crossed with fudge, and is enjoyed at room temperature (or warm, with ice cream). You can find kulolo throughout Hawaii, but it is most famous in Kauai. Kulolo post here.
Lau Lau (Hawaiian)
Lau Lau is a popular Hawaiian dish that is made of fatty pork and salted butterfish. The pork and fish are wrapped with lu'au leaves (which come from the taro/kalo plant), and ti leaves. It's steamed and eaten alongside rice, poi, and other Hawaiian dishes. Lau Lau post here.
Li Hing Mui is salty dried plum. You can get them as whole plums with the seed (which you can snack on), or you can get it as a powder. We put li hing powder on everything. Li hing pineapples (especially the ones from the shrimp trucks!), Li Hing Pickled Mango, li hing icees from Crack Seed Store, li hing malasadas, and Li Hing Gummy Bears.
It's a sweet, chewy glutinous rice cake (which also happens to be gluten free). Every Asian culture has their own style of mochi. Hawaii-style mochi is my favorite. It's soft, sweet, and not too complicated. Hawaii mochi isn't as chewy as Japanese mochi. It's also less precious and formal. We enjoy it as an everyday treat. Hawaii mochi is playful and casual (like many of the best things in Hawaii). You can make mochi at home or purchase from a mochi-ya (aka mochi shop) like Nisshodo, Happy Hearts Mochi, Two Ladies Kitchen, local supermarkets, and convenience stores in Hawaii. | See also: Butter Mochi
Pipikaula is a Hawaiian dish that came from the paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys). It's beef (bone-in short rib or flank steak) that is seasoned and dried. There are two main styles of pipikaula. Style 1: Made with bone-in short rib. Pan-fried (or deep-fried) and served hot! Style 2: Made with flank steak. Smoked (or cooked in the oven at low temperatures), sliced thin. Eat plain or tossed with poke-style seasonings. Served at room temperature. Pipikaula post here.
Poi / Kalo (Hawaiian)
Poi is a staple starch of Hawaiian food. It's made from taro (called kalo in Hawaiian). The taro is steamed, mashed, and mixed with water. The consistency of poi ranges from thin to thick (people add more/less water depending on personal taste). Poi post here.
Saimin is Hawaii's favorite noodle soup dish! It's like Hawaii's version of ramen. I like it even more than ramen. The soup is a dashi-based broth, and the noodles are wheat noodles. The standard samin topping include kamaboko (fish cake), slices of char siu, and green onions. Saimin post here. Once you've familiarized yourself with samin, try making Fried Saimin! Also make sure to check out these iconic Hawaii saimin spots: Shiro’s Saimin Haven (Oahu), Shige’s Saimin Stand (Oahu), Sam Sato’s (Maui), and Hamura Saimin (Kauai).