Okazuyas are old school delicatessens offering local Japanese dishes. They are a key part of Hawaii food culture. Point and choose, your meal is packed to-go.
What Is An Okazuya?
An okazuya is a local-style Japanese delicatessen.
The work okazuya comes from:
- Okazu - the Japanese word for side dish
- Ya - the Japanese word for shop/store
An okazuya is a shop that sells many small/side dishes. They are casual takeout lunch spots where you point and choose the individual items you desire (imagine making a customized plate lunch).
Most okazuyas are small family-run businesses that have been passed down for multiple generations.
Unique To Hawaii
Okazuya is unique to Hawaii. They are an essential and treasured part of our food culture. Okazuyas stem from Hawaii's plantation era and are often described as culinary time capsules.
In the 1800s, plantation workers stopped by the okazuya very early in the morning (often before sunrise!) to pick up lunch before heading out to work. This is how that early morning tradition began. Now in modern days, people stop by the okauzya to pick up lunch before heading to the office (or the beach, if it is your day off) ^_^
Okazuyas are something many visitors never get a chance to experience, mainly just because people outside of Hawaii don't know about it. Take the time to seek out an okazuya on your next visit and you'll be well rewarded.
How Does An Okazuya Work?
Most okazuyas open by 6am and close early afternoon. The good stuff is gone well before noon. Go early for the best selection. You'll be surprised by how busy they are at 7am or 8am in the morning.
All foods sold at an okazuya is meant to be eaten and enjoyed at room temperature. That's why it's ok to pick up your okazuya early in the morning. Just keep the box at your desk/table/office until you're ready to eat lunch.
Point and Choose
Okazuya food options are laid out in trays (containers, metal pans, etc) and showcased behind a glass counter. Point and choose the items you want. Craving a box of only tempura? Five musubis? No problem! The fun part about okazuya is that everyone can create a custom lunch box.
The okazuya lady arranges everything neatly in a box. You're charged by the item (items usually range from $1-$2 per piece or serving).
Classic (and iconic!) okazuya packaging is a paper box wrapped with a ribbon. If you order smaller portions, they might put it in a small plastic container. But the standard packaging is a paper box lined with a sheet of paper and all your "picks" placed on top of that paper.
Know Before You Go
Most people who visit okazuyas go often and already know their favorite menu items. They point and chose quickly, the line moves fast. If it's your first time, you might be overwhelmed with options (there are so many options!) And if you take too long, the line is going to back up and there'll be a lot of hungry people behind you. The solution?
Order one of the "set" menus. Most okazuyas have a few sets to select from. It's a balanced mix of the most popular items. You usually get one rice, one noodle, one vegetable, and meat or fish.
Okazuya In Hawaii
There used to be many okazuyas in Hawaii. Everywhere! But it seems that every year, another one disappears for good. Not for lack of popularity though. Most of the times is it because the younger generation* doesn't want to take over the shop.
We only have a few okazuyas left in Hawaii. We hold them near and dear. It's so much more than "just" the food when you visit an okazuya. It's about the place, the people, and the time. When you visit an okazuya, you experience a part of Hawaii's food history that extends all the way back to the 1800s. Here are a few of our go-to okazuya spots:
- Fukuya Deli (Oahu)
- Nuuanu Okazuya (Oahu)
- Gulick Delicatessen (Oahu)
- Kawamoto Store (Big Island)
- Hilo Lunch Shop (Big Island)
*One cool thing to note. Local chefs are starting to revisit iconic old school dishes like saimin and okazuya food, and making them in their own style. It's a slightly fancier version but still super approachable...a win-win for all.
Okazuyas have all the best stuff. The point and choose menu features a mix of local food and local-Japanese food.
Examples of local food: mochiko chicken, chow fun, teriyaki beef.
Examples of local-Japanese food: musubi, miso butterfish, nishime.
Both the local food and local-Japanese food are mixed together on the menu. This is an example how blended all the different food cultures are in Hawaii. Depending on the individual okazuya, you might see more of a local influence, a heavier Japanese influence, or even some Chinese influence.
(Note: you won't find traditional Hawaiian food at an okazuya, for that you'll have to visit a Hawaiian restaurant.)
Here's an example of okazuya menu items:
Rice and Noodles
Meat and Fish
- Mochiko chicken
- Shoyu chicken or shoyu pork
- Shoyu hot dog
- Garlic chicken
- Nori-wrapped chicken
- Chicken tofu
- Teriyaki beef
- Teriyaki meatballs
- Teriyaki ahi
- Fried ahi or fried akule
- Miso butterfish
Patty, Hash, and Tempura
- Fish patty
- Tofu-fish patty
- Potato hash
- Crab cake
- Shrimp tempura or vegetable tempura, or potato tempura
- Green beans
- Kimpira gobo
- Macaroni Salad
- Potato Salad
- Mochi (especially chichi dango)
- Cookies - we like crunchy cookies in Hawaii
I've been gradually posting recipes for popular okazuya items on the blog. The ones that already have recipes are linked above. I'll continue to update this post with more links as I publish the recipes. Okazuya food is simple, local-Japanese home cooking food.
I hope you visit an okazuya the next time you're in Hawaii. Until then, you can make okazuya food at home ^_^
Tuesday 21st of February 2023
My friend Cat and I wrote an Okazu cookbook back in 2007. Unfortunately it is out of print now though we donated several to the local libraries on Oahu. It’s called the Lunchbox.
Tuesday 28th of February 2023
Aloha Zoe! Wow that is super cool! I will be sure to look out for the book at the library :) - Kathy
Friday 4th of September 2020
Hi Kathy: Man, your post sure brings back memories for me. I used to love okazuyas! In my younger days living in Honolulu, I used to pick up okazu for lunch every time we went fishing, which was almost every weekend. There was a place called Honda's which I think became Masa's, but is now long gone -- on the corner of Kuakini Street and Liliha. They used to open at 5 am, and sometimes I would to pick up our bento there. But since most of time we were in the boat leaving the harbor by 4 am, I had to pick up zip pacs from Zippy's. But my all time favorite okazuya was Kaneda's on School Street, pretty close to Nuuanu Ave. Kaneda's also had a sitting area where you could get your bento and sit there and eat it. My late wife used to live up on Alewa Heights, so some weekends I would pick up Kaneda's okazu and take it up to her home and we would enjoy our lunch together -- boy, those were the good old days!!
Friday 4th of September 2020
Hi Alan! These are such wonderful memories, thank you so much for sharing. Wish I had a chance to visit Kaneda's, it sounds like such a gem :) And good old Zippy's always reliable 24 hours! Also realized I haven't had a zip pac in months!! - Kathy