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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 ^_^
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!!!
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.
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 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.
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.
Here's what you'll need to make mac salad at home:
- Dried elbow macaroni pasta
- Best Foods mayonnaise
- Onion, grated
- Carrots, shredded
- Celery, finely diced
Simple, right? All pretty common kitchen ingredients.
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.
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 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 ^_^
FAQs and Tips
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.
I like to eat it the day it's made, but you can keep it for 1-2 days in the refrigerator.
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 ^_^
Hawaiian Macaroni Salad
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!
- ¼ pound dried elbow macaroni pasta
- ½ cup Best Foods mayonnaise
- ¼ cup onion, grated
- ¼ cup carrots, shredded
- ¼ cup celery, finely diced
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- Cook the elbow macaroni pasta for 1-2 minutes more than the cook time listed on the package. Drain and set aside.
- Place the elbow macaroni in a bowl and mix in the mayonnaise, grated onions, shredded carrots, finely diced celery, salt, and pepper.
- 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!
Recipe adapted from By Request: The Search for Hawai'i's Greatest Recipes by Betty Shimabukuro.
Wednesday 30th of November 2022
What type of onion..yellow or white..since we do not have sweet Maui onions. Ty.
Friday 5th of August 2022
What type of onion is best? Red, white, yellow?
Wednesday 10th of August 2022
Aloha Brandon! We use yellow onion or sweet Maui onions when we can get them :) - Kathy
Wednesday 29th of December 2021
Any recipe for cooking table taro? My mom used to make it when I was a kid growing up in Kona. Served diced with milk and sugar. Now I like it just cooked and sliced.
Saturday 23rd of October 2021
A couple questions coming from a former Kamaina. So we have always made extra for leftovers and the next day the Mayo (Hellman’s)turns oily and does not stay creamy like the first day. Any suggestions? I didn’t realize the onion was in there and usually just add salt and pepper with small sliced carrots. Not really a fan of raw onion.
Monday 1st of November 2021
@Susie, Another former kamaina here. Went to Radford H.S. when it was brand new, late 1950's, so a lo-o-ong time ago. Back then, we had to spend one day a quarter helping in the kitchen. Anyhow, the two recipes I coveted were for their mac salad and their shortbread. Helped with the mac salad one "cafeteria day", so observed how they did theirs. They followed the recipe above, but with the splash of vinegar on the bare, drained, hot cooked noodles, let it sink in while the noodles cool. Then stir in the carrots, grated onion, a little finely-chopped bell pepper, and half the dressing (mayo, a little brown sugar, and a little evaporated milk to thin slightly). The noodles soak up all the first half of that ono dressing that way. Then the mixture, and the remainder of the dressing, were refrigerated. Then, shortly before serving, the remainder of the dressing was stirred in. Made the mac salad creamy. The shortbread recipe was reverse-engineered for smaller quantity by a friend, but I have since lost my copy, unfortunately.
Friday 20th of August 2021
Hi. Do we use white or yellow onion? Thanks