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Hawaiian Macaroni Salad

Mac Salad (also called Macaroni Salad or Hawaiian Macaroni Salad*) is a popular side dish that we love to make at home. Learn about what makes Hawaii’s mac salad unique, find the best place to eat mac salad in Hawaii, and get the recipe!

A bowl of Hawaiian Macaroni Salad.
Hawaii’s mac salad! So easy to make at home.

We love to eat mac salad in Hawaii.

The formal name is “macaroni salad” but locals just say, “mac salad.”

*Learn more about why mac salad is a local dish and not a Hawaiian dish in the section below.

Chicken katsu plate lunch from Gochi Grill
Mac salad (with chicken katsu and rice) from Gochi Grill (Oahu).

What Is Local Mac Salad

Local mac salad is macaroni salad that has been Hawaii-ized.

Like many famous Hawaii dishes, we take a dish and adapt it our own tastes/traditions. Everything that comes to Hawaii gets Hawaii-ized ^_^

Local mac salad tastes different from mac salad on the mainland. Key characteristics of local mac salad:

  • Tangy – Usually from grated onion or vinegar.
  • Lots of mayo – Always Best Foods (which is also sold under the Hellman’s name).
  • Fully cooked mac noodles – Ideally overcooked! That is not a bad thing because it soaks up the mayo nicer.
  • Local add-ins – Think ‘ulu (breadfruit) and kamaboko (fishcake).

Mac salad with a bento at Ookini Onigiri.
Mac salad with a bento at Ookini Onigiri (Oahu).

How Did Mac Salad Get To Hawaii

Iconic Hawaii dishes like saimin and shave ice we created during Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantation era in the late 1800s. Both those dishes were the result/combination of different ethnic groups working together in Hawaii.

Saimin is a mix of ramen, pancit, Chinese noodle soups, etc, adjusted to local tastes. Shave ice is a mix of kakigori and many different ice desserts from Southeast Asia, also adjusted to local tastes.

'Ulu mac salad with a poi/kalua pig/lomi lomi salmon bowl at Hanalei Taro (Kauai)
‘Ulu mac salad with a poi/kalua pig/lomi lomi salmon bowl at Hanalei Taro (Kauai).

But mac salad has an interesting story. Two stories (via Arnold Hiura’s Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands): 

  • Some say mac salad came to Hawaii via potato salad from Europe. Tourism is Hawaii’s main industry, and many hotel chefs in early 1900s Hawaii were brought in from Europe. Those chefs got potato salad into the hotel kitchen and restaurant menus. Then it got popular with home cooks (who replaced the potatoes with macaroni because it was more affordable).
  • Other say mac salad came from the sugar and pineapple plantation. But instead of coming from the plantation workers (who were mainly Asian), it came from the plantation managers and owners (who were mostly European). They had the (primarily Asian) staff prepare potato salad for meals. The staff adapted the potato turned mac salad for their own tastes. 

And that’s how we have local mac salad.

Mac salad (with ginger-garlic salmon and rice) at Gochi Grill (Oahu).
Mac salad (with ginger-garlic salmon and rice) at Gochi Grill (Oahu).

Is This Hawaiian Food?

Outside of Hawaii, this dish is often called “Hawaiian macaroni salad.” That is incorrect because this is a local dish and not a Hawaiian dish. Mac salad is from Hawaii, but that doesn’t automatically make it Hawaiian food. Learn more about the difference here.

I titled this post Hawaiian macaroni salad, not to further reinforce the name but in the hopes that people will discover this post and realize that Hawaiian macaroni salad is in fact, just mac salad!

Since there are many different types of mac salad in the world, you can also call it Hawaii’s mac salad, Hawaii-style mac salad, or even mac salad from Hawaii.

Mainly, we just hope you enjoy the dish ^_^

A plate lunch with loco moco (plus spam) and a scoop of mac salad on the side
Mac salad with Loco Moco at Cafe 100 (Big Island).

How Is Mac Salad Served In Hawaii

Local mac salad is most often served on a plate, along two scoops of rice and a meat dish (think chicken katsu, kalbi, loco moco, hamburger steak, etc). In Hawaii we call this a “plate lunch.”

FYI: The best part is when part of the meat sits on top of the mac salad, and the mac salad soaks up some meat juices. Bonkers!!!

Mac salad at Liliha Bakery, Ala Moana location (Oahu).
Mac salad at Liliha Bakery, Ala Moana location (Oahu).

You can also order it as side dish in many restaurants. A side of mac salad is always a good idea! Funny though, if you sit down with a group of friends for lunch at a restaurant, no one will suggest ordering mac salad (probably because it is so fatty 🙂 ), but if you just order it, everyone will dive in for some. And then you’ll have to place a second order!

The funny thing is, I don’t enjoy eating mac salad on the mainland. But there’s something about local mac salad…it’s not just the dish itself, but what it’s served with, the atmosphere, and your surroundings, that make eating mac salad in Hawaii feel so right.

Potato-mac salad at Alicia's Market (Oahu).
Potato-mac salad at Alicia’s Market (Oahu).

How To Eat Mac Salad

Fork or chopsticks will do the trick. I eat mac salad the same way I eat rice and poi. It’s a starch (though laden with mayo) meant to accompany the main dish.

At Korean places, I’ll eat a piece of kalbi, and then use chopsticks to get some mac salad. At a plate lunch place, I’ll take a bit of chicken katsu and then a forkful of mac salad.

If I’m feeling extra lazy, I’ll use a spoon and just eat big spoonfuls of mac salad (which can be gross or delicious depending on your mood).

Mac salad (made with spaghetti noodles) at Fish Express (Kauai).
Mac salad (made with spaghetti noodles) at Fish Express (Kauai).

Mac Salad Variations

Most important thing to note is that there are no absolute rules when it comes to mac salad. Like how everyone has their own chili pepper water recipe, everyone has their own mac salad recipe. These are cool variations to look out for in Hawaii:

  • Spaghetti instead of Elbow Macaroni – I see this version often in Kauai but not so much the other islands. Not sure why that is, but I think it’s very cool.
  • Elbow Macaroni and Potato – This is a mac salad made 50/50 with half-macaroni and half-potato (boiled and diced). I love this version!
  • Classic Add-Ins – Peas, canned tuna, and grated carrots are classic add-ins for local mac salad.
  • Special Add-Ins – ‘Ulu (breadfruit), imitation crab, tobiko, and kamaboko (fishcake) are considered “fancier” add-ins.

Mac salad at Tin Roof (Maui).
Mac salad at Tin Roof (Maui).

Where To Eat Mac Salad In Hawaii

You can find mac salad everywhere in Hawaii! From famous plate lunch places like Rainbow Drive-In, to local restaurants like Zippy’s and Liliha Bakery, and Hawaiian food spots like Helena’s Hawaiian Food and Alicia’s Market, mac salad is everywhere you go. These are a few places to get started:

  • Liliha Bakery (Oahu) – For a taste of very “classic Hawaii” mac salad. 
  • Rainbow Drive-In (Oahu) – Famous local plate lunches, always served with two scoops of rice and mac salad.
  • Helena’s Hawaiian Food (Oahu) – They serve mac salad with traditional Hawaiian dishes. 
  • Alicia’s Market (Oahu) – For potato-mac salad.
  • Gochi Grill (Oahu) – Love the plate lunches and daily specials, I always order one that comes with mac salad.
  • Zippy’s (Oahu, Maui, Big Island) – Mac salad comes with most plate lunches. Here’s my full post on Zippy’s.
  • Tin Roof (Maui) – They have ‘ulu mac salad! Order it as a side dish for just $1. In addition to the elbow macaroni, this version also has steamed and diced ‘ulu (breadfruit), eggs, celery, carrots, garlic salt, and pepper.
  • Hanalei Taro & Juice Company (Kauai) – They also have ‘ulu mac salad! Love getting this with their poi, kalua pig, and lomi lomi salmon bowl at the Saturday Farmer’s Market (at Kauai Community College).
  • Fish Express (Kauai) – Order a side of mac salad (made with spaghetti noodles) with your poke bowl.

Ingredients for Hawaiian Macaroni Salad laid out on a table. The ingredients are elbow macaroni pasta, carrots, celery, onions, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper.
Ingredients for Mac Salad.

Ingredients

Here’s what you’ll need to make mac salad at home:

Simple, right? All pretty common kitchen ingredients.

Ingredients for Hawaiian Macaroni Salad combined in a bowl. The ingredients are elbow macaroni pasta, carrots, celery, onions, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper.
Mixing all the mac salad ingredients in a bowl

Step by Step Directions

Cook elbow macaroni.
Cook the elbow macaroni pasta for 1-2 minutes more than the cook time listed on the package. Drain the elbow macaroni. Set aside and let cool for a few minutes.

Tip from a local: it is super important to slightly overcook the elbow macaroni. More details on why in the section below.

Mix.
Place the cooked elbow macaroni in a serving bowl. Top it with all the other ingredients (mayonnaise, onions, carrots, celery, salt, and pepper). Use a spoon to mix well.

Refrigerate.
Refrigerate the dish at least an hour (this allows the flavors to mix and meld). Remove from the fridge 10 minutes before serving. The mac salad should be cool but not cold. Serve as a side dish. Eat and enjoy ^_^

A bowl of Hawaiian Macaroni Salad.
Mac salad is easy to make at home.

FAQs and Tips

How long to cook the elbow macaroni pasta?

Follow the instructions on the package BUT cook the macaroni for 1-2 minutes more than the package directions. You want slightly overcooked macaroni for mac salad. The soft texture is a signature of Hawaii’s mac salad. It also helps the macaroni better absorb all the flavors.

How long can mac salad keep?

I like to eat it the day it’s made, but you can keep it for 1-2 days in the refrigerator.

Additions and substitutions?

Ooo yes, many ideas. Here are a couple to get started:
– Add a splash of apple cider vinegar for an extra tang.
– Replace the elbow macaroni with spaghetti (cut into short pieces).
– Popular add-ins include everything from peas to canned tuna, imitation crab, tobiko, ‘ulu (breadfruit) and kamaboko (fishcake).

Hawaiian Macaroni Salad Recipe

See below. This is a super ono Hawaiian Macaroni Salad recipe. We hope you enjoy ^_^

A bowl of Hawaiian Macaroni Salad.

Hawaiian Macaroni Salad

Yield: 4 servings (as a side dish)
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes

Mac Salad (also called Macaroni Salad or Hawaiian Macaroni Salad) is a popular side dish in Hawaii. This is a classic version that is easy to make with pantry staples. It is onolicious and endlessly adaptable. Enjoy it as a side dish or part of a plate lunch!

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Cook the elbow macaroni pasta for 1-2 minutes more than the cook time listed on the package. Drain and set aside.
  2. Place the elbow macaroni in a bowl and mix in the mayonnaise, grated onions, shredded carrots, finely diced celery, salt, and pepper.
  3. Refrigerate the dish at least an hour - this allows the flavors to mix. Serve slightly chilled (remove from the refrigerator 10 minutes before serving) as a side dish. Enjoy!

Notes

Recipe adapted from By Request: The Search for Hawai'i's Greatest Recipes by Betty Shimabukuro.

Ayce

Friday 20th of August 2021

Hi. Do we use white or yellow onion? Thanks

Keith

Thursday 27th of May 2021

When living on the Big Island I learned to add small amount of apple cider vinegar to the hot drained pasta and toss before adding everything else. Gives it a nice zing. Not sure if I ever noticed onion in it no matter where I ate it (whether at friends home, a pot luck or restaurant). Maybe the Big Island has it's own variation which excludes it or maybe it was just too small of pieces that I didn't notice?

Steve

Tuesday 18th of May 2021

What is the secret ingredient in Korean-style mac salad (the kind you get from Yummys/Peppas or Gina's)? It's my favorite mac salad and has an extra tang and savoriness, but it doesn't seem like it's just due to vinegar. Anyone know?

Liz

Thursday 13th of May 2021

I've been making it that way for years...hint ..a splash of white vinegar is the secret ingredient people always ask me about .

Mary

Wednesday 5th of May 2021

Did you mention why rice and Macaroni salad together? Good piece of history.

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