5 Classic Hawaiian Foods To Try That Aren’t Poke

HAWAII CAN BE RECORDED FOR THE FRESHNESS AND BRILLIANT FLAVORS OF ITS INGREDIENTS. One of the most iconic dishes in Hawaii is poke. This as-fresh-as-you-can-get, raw, diced, and lightly seasoned fish dish is of course worth trying in Hawaii, but there are so many other dishes native to Hawaii that deserve the iconic status poke enjoys among mainlanders.

The islands’ rich multicultural heritage is the foundation of the best Hawaiian food, from comforting noodle soup and spam sushi to delicious and hearty Hawaiian cuisine. These dishes combine Japanese, Portuguese and Filipino flavors with local ingredients. Modern versions of traditional Hawaiian staple foods are also available that use Hawaii’s rich and varied plant life. Hawaii’s culinary delights go beyond fish. They include canoe plant, international ingredients and cooking techniques based on ancient Hawaii and its extensive plantation history.

“I like that Hawaiian food in Reno which was essentially sustenance food back in ancient Hawaii has evolved over the years and become a really delicious and satisfying comfort meal,” Keoni Chang (vice president of Foodland), tells me. “[And] many of the items that are considered ‘luau foods’ are derived from Hawaii’s diverse ethnicity and history.

If you are next in Hawaii, don’t be afraid to try poke. But, also, take the time to explore the many other cuisines of the island. These are 10 other dishes you can try in Hawaii, besides poke.

1. Saimin

Saimin, Hawaii’s Japanese ramen equivalent, is what Hawaii has to offer. The broth is simple and dashi-based. It’s topped with char siu (barbecue meat), green onions and pink and white fish cakes called Kamaboko. These fish cakes swim among springy wheat noodles. Another alternative is the wun tunmin, which can be topped with pork dumplings. Saimin is so widespread and popular that you can get versions at your local 7-11 or McDonald’s in Hawaii.

Named after two Chinese words, sai (thin), and mein (noodles), The dish’s legacy, however, is one of intertwining cultural influences. It was first discovered in 1800s camps for workers on Hawaii’s sugar- and pineapple plantations. This dish is similar to many other dishes on this page. According to an essay in Life & Thyme, Filipino, Chinese and Japanese workers ate lunch together and traded flavors and ingredients until “saimin” was born.

2. Spam musubi

This popular snack from convenience stores is a favorite in Hawaii. It’s a convenient, portable treat that you can grab and go. Sandwich grilled spam between two rice squares wrapped in nori.

Although there is conflicting information about who invented spam-musubi, most stories agree it was created during World War II, when close to 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned at camps after the attack of Pearl Harbor. Many interred families wanted to be a close replica of onigiri, a cylindrical cake made of rice wrapped in nori that’s loved as comfort food. It also included shelf-stable Spam.

Two Japanese-American women are frequently credited with the creation of the modern spam musubi. Barbara Funamura sold them it from her restaurant Joni-Hana. Another story states that Mitsuko Kanneshiro made them first for her children, before selling them at a Honolulu pharmacy until she could open her own shop.

3. Haupia

This dessert is made with coconut milk, sugar, and cornstarch. Although sometimes called coconut pudding, its consistency is more like Jell-O and pudding. Haupia was traditionally cut into small squares and chilled before being served plain. It is often served with a Hawaiian plate lunch (more details to come soon), and at luaus. Haipua can also be added to ice cream and pies, most notably chocolate haupia cake. It is sometimes called a “dessert institution” here in Hawaii.

4. Poi

Many chefs agree that poi is one of the most under-appreciated food in Hawaii. The traditional Hawaiian food of the islands is made by grinding taro root into a paste using a papa ku’i’ai (a wooden board) and a pohakuku’i ‘a (a wooden pestle). M by chef Mavro is the proprietor of Honolulu’s . Shigekane says that while outsiders may not like the texture, they should appreciate the effort that goes into making such a simple dish.

Chang states that people see it as a novelty. But, I believe the problem is that it’s too thick. “I like my poi very cold. It was served with ice cubes by my great-grandmother. It was best to be eaten when it was only three days old. Then it turned sour. It had a nice tang to them. It’s tempting me to imagine sour poi with fried fish, chili pepper water, Maui onions, Hawaiian salt, and Maui onions.

Alan Wong, cofounder of Hawaii Food Festival, uses a similar poi recipe: He tops poi using lomi lomi salmon, and then sprinkles chili pepper water. He also makes poi stew using cubed beef.

He adds, “I think poi has been misunderstood.” As a child, the first time I tried it, it was like eating cigar smoke. I hated it. Many people mistakenly think it smells like glue paste. However, there are many types of poi. It’s very alkaline and is a healthy product.

5. Ice shaven

Tourists and locals alike line up to try shaved ice, which is perhaps Hawaii’s most famous dessert. As with many beloved Hawaiian foods, it is at least partly due to the migration of people who settled on the islands. In the mid-1800s Japanese immigrants introduced kakigori to their Hawaiian neighbors. They modified the Japanese-inspired dish by cutting flakes from large blocks of ice and then adding sugar or fruit juice to sweeten the mixture. You can now find shaved ice flavors such as pickled mango and lilikoi, along with toppings such as Japanese red beans.

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