Big, fluffy, and stuffed with everything from sweet-savory char siu to kalua pork and Okinawan sweet potato, the manapua is Hawaii's answer to Chinese baos.
Baked manapua offerings at Royal Kitchen (Oahu)
Meet the manapua!
Baked char siu bao from Chun Wah Kam (Oahu)
What Is Manapua?
Short answer: Hawaii's version of a char siu bao.
They're big and fluffy buns that come steamed (more traditional) or baked. The "classic" manapua is filled with char siu.
What is char siu? Seasoned, fatty pork that's marinated in a char siu seasoning*, then roasted. It's so wonderful sweet, salty...saucy! They pork is diced small and stuffed into the manapua dough.
*Char siu is Chinese roast pork, but for manapua, we use a Hawaii-ized char siu marinade recipe that includes oyster sauce, sugar, five spice, Hawaiian salt, honey...and yes, red food coloring.
Waiting in line, Saturday morning at Char Hung Sut (Oahu)
When you bring over a box of fresh manapua to a friend's house, they first thing they'll ask (after thanking you) is, ooo what flavor manapua??
Though char siu is the classic manapua filling, there are many other sweet and savory options. We cover the different fillings below...you should try them all.
Char siu manapua (one steamed, one baked) from Chun Wah Kam (Oahu)
What Does "Manapua" Mean?
Manapua is a Hawaiian word. It's the shortened version of two words:
- Mea ʻono puaʻa which means "delicious pork thing."
- Mauna puaa which means "mountain of pork."
You couldn't ask for a better name ^_^
Manapua menu board at Royal Kitchen (Oahu)
Different Types of Manapua Fillings
You can get both sweet and savory manapua. I love to eat one of each for a simple lunch.
- Char siu - This should be the first manapua you try. Char siu is the classic filling.
- Curry chicken - You know those Japanese stuffed and fried curry buns? Think of this as the Hawaii version of those buns.
- Kalua pig / kalua pork - It's like traditional Hawaiian meets Chinese steam buns. This combo makes me happy.
- Lup cheong
- Portuguese sausage - Because we eat Portuguese sausage in and with everything.
- Hot dog
- Vegetarian (mix of long rice, shredded cabbage, carrots, and mushrooms) - This is actually one of my favorites!
- Black sugar - Definitely try this!
- Red bean - A classic sweet filling
- Okinawan sweet potato - We use Okinawan sweet potato in many dishes like lau lau.
One sweet, one savory manapua at Royal Kitchen (Oahu)
Manapua versus Bao
Manapua is an evolution of the Chinese steamed char siu bao, a popular dim sum dish. The Chinese introduced char siu bao to Hawaii during the plantation era* in the 1800s. In Hawaii, the buns became bigger and the char siu filling sweeter. Steaming was the traditional cooking method, but in later years, baked manapua also became popular.
Similarities between Manapua and Bao:
- Both are offered steamed and baked.
- Both can include savory and sweet fillings.
Differences between Manapua and Bao:
- Manapua are significantly bigger in size.
- Manapua has seam/closure side down. Bao has seam/closure side-up.
- Both manapua and bao require yeast for the dough. But some manapua dough recipes also call for baking powder and sesame oil.
Inside a black sugar manapua at Royal Kitchen (Oahu)
The Manapua Man
Have you heard of the manapua man?
The phrase "manapua man" came about in the 1800s during the sugar plantation era. After completing their contracts as plantation workers, many Chinese went on to open restaurants and snack shops. To boost sales, they would also walk around different neighborhoods selling snacks (like char siu baos) to locals...and that how they became known as manapua men. The manapua man is an iconic symbol of Hawaii.
In the 1900s, "modern day manapua men" would sell fresh manapua (and other nostalgic local treats like pork hash and half moon) out of trucks. They were very common in Hawaii. People would get manapua from their local manapua man for lunch breaks, or after school treats.
I remember seeing the occasional modern day manapua man in trucks growing up in the 1990s, but a lot of them were gone by the early 2000s. You rarely see them today, but if you do, you must stop and have some!
Entering Char Hung Sut in Chinatown (Oahu)
Where To Eat Manapua in Hawaii
So many places (full list at the bottom of the post). Manapua cost about $1.40-$2.35 each. You'll need about two for a lunch (one sweet, one savory), and one for a snack.
Steamed char siu bao from Char Hung Sut (Oahu)
Some of us are opinionated about who makes the best manapua...but honestly, I love visiting all the manapua shops. Some have offerings that others don't, some specialize in baked manapua, while others have a ton of other tasty menu items like half-moon...
Peek into the kitchen (spot the manapuas?) at Royal Kitchen (Oahu)
Below are my go-to spots:
- Char Hung Sut (Oahu) - Perhaps the most popular manapua spot in town. Located at the edge of Chinatown. The entrance is easy to miss but you'll know it's Char Hung Sut by the line that spills out onto N Pauahi Street (especially on weekend mornings). They make steamed and baked manapua, but the steamed is better. Make sure to get half-moons while you're there...they're my favorite ^_^
- Royal Kitchen (Oahu) - They make baked manapua only, and they have the largest options of sweet and savory fillings (the first photo at the top this post shows some of their manapua filling options).
- Chun Wah Kam (Oahu) - This place is pricer than the rest (but still affordable). They make both steamed and baked manapua. Bonus, multiple locations around town.
- Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery (Oahu) - Get the baked manapua here, they're more generous with the char siu filling than most.
- Manapua Man and Manapua Woman (All Islands) - Keep an eye out for the manapua man and woman. Classic manapua trucks are rare nowadays and you won't find them in the touristy parts of Hawaii (if you're lucky you may find them Pearl City and Ewa Beach).
- 7-11 (All Islands) - Yes, 7-11!! You know how 7-11 in Japan is amazing? Hawaii 7-11 isn't as thrilling, but it still pretty great (a billion steps up from 7-11 anywhere else in the US). It's common to stop at 7-11 for local treats and snacks including fresh and hot steamed manapua. You'll see the manapua case next to the register. Perfect little treat.