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Hawaiian Macaroni Salad

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Mac salad is a staple side dish in Hawaii. Our version is unique to the islands, often a bit tangy and loaded with add-ins like kamaboko and 'ulu (breadfruit).

Mac salad (with chicken katsu and rice) at Gochi Grill (Oahu)

We love to eat mac salad in Hawaii.

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

Mac salad at Helena's Hawaiian Food (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 ^_^

People not from Hawaii often refer to this dish as "Hawaiian Macaroni Salad." But in Hawaii, we consider mac salad to be "local food" (not "Hawaiian food" - more here).

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

  • Tangy - usually via 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 (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)

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 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)

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)

How Do You 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.

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

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)

Variations On Mac Salad

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 - it's 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)

Where To Get 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) - have mac salad with traditional Hawaiian dishes. 
  • Alicia's Market (Oahu) - for potato-mac salad.
  • Gochi Grill (Oahu) - love the plate lunches and daily specials here, 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. Along the base of mac noodles, this version also has 'ulu (breadfruit, steamed and diced), 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) - get a side of mac salad (made with spaghetti noodles!) with your poke bowl.
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Mahalo for Reading!

Gina

Sunday 29th of December 2019

Mac salad is my favorite side dish! I also love eating it by the spoonful but usually never admit that to anyone. My mom makes hers 50/50 (elbow macaroni & potato) but substitutes Best Foods for Miracle Whip, which adds a bit of sweetness to the dish.

Kathy Chan

Sunday 29th of December 2019

Hi Gina! Ahaha eating by the spoonful is the way to go! Love the 50/50 macaroni and potato combo :) - Kathy

Kylee

Wednesday 16th of October 2019

Macaroni salad is also popular in Japan. I believe it was introduced by American and British sailors during the early 1800s. Wouldn't surprise me if it go to Hawaii via the Japanese immigrants in the late 1800s.

Kathy Chan

Wednesday 16th of October 2019

Hi Kylee,

Yes, that's definitely another possibility. Hawaii is so lucky to be a melting pot of many different food cultures ^_^

- Kathy

Brent

Monday 5th of August 2019

"...just eat big spoonfuls of mac salad (which can be gross or delicious depending on your mood)" - uh, when is this ever gross? =)

J. Minitera

Sunday 1st of March 2020

I've had near gross experiences - like the last bite of my 3rd side order LOL

Kathy Chan

Monday 12th of August 2019

Ahahah! Fair enough, Brent! ^_^

- Kathy

kobi

Monday 5th of August 2019

Don't forget mayonnaise needs to be Best Foods. I am partial to Barilla macaroni. It's a little thinner when cooked with ridges that add a nice texture.

Kathy Chan

Monday 12th of August 2019

Hi Kobi! Yes, Best Foods always ^_^ Thanks for the Barilla tip, I'll make sure give that a try next time!

- Kathy