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Hawaiian Cuisine

The food of the most exotic of the fifty American states, Hawaii, can be described two ways, depending on perspective. The first description to come to mind involves those foods traditionally associated with the Hawaiian celebration known as the luau. One staple is poi, a paste made from mashed taro root; it may take some getting used to. Another is Kalua pig.

To make this delicacy, either for local consumption or tourist entertainment, the cooks dig a pit into the sand, line it with banana leaves, line it again with heated stones, add a salted whole pig (sometimes with an apple in its mouth), cover it with more leaves, then bury it all for a long slow cook. Poke is a form of raw fish, soaked in lemon or lime juice, and thus denatured (a form of cooking without heat) in a manner similar to the Spanish and Latin American dish cebiche. Lomilomi salmon is a mash of diced salmon with scallions and tomatoes, all mixed (lomi is the Hawaiian term for massage) by hand.

Hawaiians hold their own luaus, to celebrate events like weddings, births and graduations, and of course luaus are held for tourists, but Hawaiian food, and indeed Hawaiian life, is more complicated than these traditional customs would indicate, for three key reasons:

  • Native Hawaiians form only about a tenth of the population of the state. Asians, primarily those with Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino roots, are the majority, with whites of mainland background and Hispanics filling out this interesting mix.
  • Hawaii’s unique location and climate give it unparalleled access to products of both land and sea unavailable nowhere else.
  • Hawaii, exotic as it may seem, is nevertheless one of the United States. In nearly three quarters of all Hawaiian households, English is the only language spoken. The state has hence a strong connection to the mainstream American food culture, which it in turn has the ability to influence. Hawaiians love to “go grind,” an easy-to-adopt term for eating with an unashamed enthusiasm.

The result is an exciting cuisine, called by many “Hawaiian fusion cuisine,” that generates a high level of excitement, press, magazine, and television coverage. Sam Choy, author of Sam Choy’s Island Flavors, acted as one of the twelve chefs of varying backgrounds who formulated what they called “Hawaiian Regional Cuisine” (HRC) in a successful effort to focus the state’s considerable culinary resources into a world cuisine. Purist luaus aside, the everyday food of the islands had always reflected a culinary fusion. Choy and others worked with local farmers and seafood purveyors with the aim of raising the profile of Hawaiian cooking.
A true fusion is evident in the Maui Sheraton Hotel’s Macadamia Nut Phyllo Sticks, or its Seared Onaga with Chili Tobiko Beurre Blanc, the first a rich native nut wrapped with white and dark chocolate in a Greek pasty shell, the second a local snapper-like fish using a Japanese chili tobiko (that hot sushi seasoning), with Worcestershire sauce of traditional British provenance, all in a classic French sauce.

Restaurateur Roy Yamaguchi, another of the HRC founding chefs, runs six Roy’s restaurants in Hawaii (and a chain of 24 in the continental United States), all designed to blend local Hawaiian ingredients with European sauces and Asian spice. The emphasis is on seafood. A dish like Hawaiian Blackened Island Ahi (a local tuna-like fish), served in Spicy Soy Mustard Butter, reveals the kind of fusion of flavors and tradition that occurs today in the finest contemporary American cooking. Roy’s Roasted Macadamia Nut Mahi Mahi uses the local fish with the local nut, but adds a lobster butter sauce of unquestioned European derivation.

French-born and educated Jean-Marie Josselin, another of the HRC founders, uses organic produce he specially commissions for his several restaurants, where he employs Mediterranean, Indian, French and Italian influences with an eye on healthy dishes that delight all the senses; the multi-cultural theme is exemplified in dishes like his Wok-Charred Mahi Mahi with Garlic-Sesame Crust and Lime-Ginger Beurre Blanc: Chinese, French, contemporary American, and Hawaiian. Josselin’s book A Taste of Hawaii is a sensual journey into the kitchen of his restaurant A Pacific Café.

HRC chef Alan Wong heads the Canoe House Restaurant at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel on the big island of Hawaii. Stressing local products like all the HRC chefs, Wong may top sea scallops in a spiced guava sauce, or combine Italian ravioli with native Hawaiian taro leaves, all the while following Chinese concepts of yin and yang, a balance of flavors like sweet and sour, of textures, and of visual arrangements of foods on the plate.

Texas-born HRC chef Amy Ferguson-Ota adds a southwestern American touch to the usual mix of international ingredients. At the Fairmont Kea Lani Food and Wine Masters event on Maui, she prepared a dish of Island Wood Smoked Quail, Sweet Corn Chorizo Stuffing, Beauregard Yam with Ohelo Berry Sauce. None of these chefs are big on conformity.

The HRC chefs, including Peter Merriman (at whose Kamuela restaurant the movement is said to have begun), almost uniformly take important steps to support local farms and food industries in order to make sure that, no matter what culinary influences they use in their kitchens, the food is of the highest quality and uses ingredients that are consistently local. Merriman’s mission statement is to “remain the landmark for Hawaii Regional Cuisine, by providing discriminating diners with an experience which is fun and full of discovery, created by passionate staff and farmers.” The word “fun” seems to describe all these chefs and the food experiences they create.

In some parts of the United States, and in remnants in major tourist spots in Hawaii itself, certain types of restaurants offer what they term Hawaiian or Polynesian food, often combined with Chinese or Japanese dishes. These restaurants feature exotic cocktails like the Mai Tai (festooned with tiny paper umbrellas), and dishes like roast pork in pineapple, often with Hawaiian-themed décor and music. These restaurants have little connection with the vital cuisine typical of Hawaii today.