What’s the first thing you think of when I say “Hawaiian food?” I’m willing to bet that pineapple comes up more often than not! I confess, my mind certainly went there before I ever stepped food in Hawaii. That’s also pretty much where my thoughts of Hawaiian food ended, but then flights are booked and suddenly my foodie interest is piqued. Last March, before heading out to Hawaii for the first time, I did a quick google search to find out the food that awaited me in paradise. Words like poi, lau lau, and lomi salmon kept popping up, and that was the moment I knew that I knew nothing about Hawaiian food at all, but I was very intrigued and hungry! Looking back after my fourth visit within a year (business travel win!), I’ve had so many delectable bites that didn’t necessarily make it to the lists I found online but were so good I can’t wait to recreate them at home to relive the aloha. I let my taste buds guide me, and they did not lead me astray!
Let’s start with the most important of all Hawaiian foods: poke (pronounced po-keh). The first thing I ate when I stepped off the plane on my first ever visit to Hawaii was poke. Traditionally, poke is dish made of diced raw ahi tuna mixed with shoyu, onions, and seaweed. So essentially, it’s like a Hawaiian version of ceviche, but with a completely different flavour palette. I was hesitant to try it at first, figuring it should probably be at a fancy restaurant and not the Margaritaville I was sitting in, but from the first forkful, I was completely in love and couldn’t get enough! I may or may not have had poke every single day that visit. (Hint: I did)
My favourite to date is the one at the Four Seasons Manele Bay on the island of Lana’i (pictured above), but you don’t need to go to a fancy restaurant or hotel to taste some good poke! In fact, some of the best pokes can be found at the local grocery store (tried, tested, and approved by yours truly). Head to a Foodland on any of the islands and you’ll find an array of different poke lined up behind the refrigerator, waiting to be scooped up for you. Poke’s even making its presence known on the mainland, with poke shops popping up all over California. I sense a craze coming soon…
Before you get all “tacos are not Hawaiian” on me, hear me out for a second. I think it’s pretty safe to say that tacos have been having their moment in the sun for a few years now, and we’ve all had our fill of those deliciously stuffed tortillas. I’ve been trying to stay away from them lately but they seem to follow me around, offering original fusion fillings that I’ve never had before wrapped in a tortilla. The usual chicken, beef, pork, and fish get a Hawaiian makeover and get topped off with a ton of fresh vegetables and sometimes fruit like mango.
One of the last meals I had in Lahaina happened to be a duo of tacos I settled on at the Lahainaluna Cafe, a place I had strolled by often and bookmarked for later. I picked the day’s special Kalua pork taco topped with mango salsa and the Korean beef taco came highly recommended by another patron. I grabbed my order, sat down in the courtyard of the cafe and proceeded to have my mind blown by two tacos. Kalua is a traditional Hawaiian method of cooking pork buried underground that leaves it juicy and tender and oh so yummy. The Korean beef is a perfectly delicious example of the Asian influence on Hawaiian cooking. And the tortilla shells? They’re just the vessels for deliciousness.
Macadamia Nut Everything
The macadamia nut is one of Hawaii’s biggest crops, and that becomes obvious from the moment you peruse your first menu. The tiny nut pops up in every meal, from macadamia nut pancakes for breakfast to Hula pie for dessert, and adds a certainly creamy-nutty taste that seems to work with a lot of different flavours. Honestly, I wasn’t the biggest macnut fan before going to Hawaii, preferring to stay away from the usual white-chocolate-macadamia cookies that can be found in North America, but that changed the moment I stepped foot on the islands. My favourite incarnation is the macadamia-nut-crusted mahi mahi. It may be topped with a tropical salsa, drizzled with a white wine cream sauce, or accompanied by a Maui onion salad.
The first time I tried some macnut-crusted mahi mahi was at the Lahaina Fish Co. and it was served with a side of Moloka’i sweet potato mash (i.e. the purple stuff). I was in macnut heaven from the first crunchy bite! The sweet potato mash was the perfect companion to the fish, and tasted a bit more mellow than the sweet potatoes I’ve tasted at home. When I wasn’t scarfing half the plate down (this was a rather large portion with two mahi fillets!), I was telling everyone to try it and plotting to scrap breakfast plans for the next day in favour of the leftovers. You know when you have a meal that is so good you can conjure the taste by memory? This was that meal for me. Though there are other incarnations on the island of Maui (Roy’s is famous for it, and the casual Down The Hatch does a really yummy version as well), I will always go back to the Lahaina Fish Co. to get my fix!
All hail the acai bowl!
We all know about acai bowls at this point, right? You can’t browse the internet without hitting a few acai bowl recipes and articles about their health benefits. Well, Lahaina is in full acai bowl craze, and I have to say, it’s a tasty craze that everyone should get in on! Fruit in Hawaii is so fresh and bursting with flavour that it seems the Brazilian superfood has found a place in the volcanic archipelago. When in Lahaina, you MUST try an acai bowl!
I was in Lahaina last week, and in three days I tried not one but two different acai bowls. While they were both good, the one I had from the slightly off the beaten path Baya Bowls foodtruck was absolutely, mind-bogglingly amazing! Every bowl comes topped with granola, bananas, strawberries, coconut shavings and a drizzle of honey. I added some kiwi to mine and the flavours absolutely danced in my mouth! So delicious was this acai bowl that I had a veritable photo shoot with it (as you can see in the featured image on this post and above) in between spoonfuls of acai goodness. I’m not sure I can ever recreate the awesome combo from Baya’s amazing acai bowl, but I will certainly try. And failing that? Book my ticket back to Maui. (I like that plan)
Frozen treats: Gelato vs. Shave Ice
Hawaii has two temperatures: warm and warmer. Obviously, this leads to a place that knows its frozen treats. You may have heard of the much-lauded shave ice. Make no mistake guys, there is no “shaved” ice in Hawaii. If you want to get all kama’aina (that’s Hawaiian for local *brushing my shoulder off*), you best call it shave ice! I may know how to pronounce it but I confess: I’m not a shave ice fan. Don’t hunt me down, I know, it’s super popular, I know, it’s a local favourite, I know, tourists also flock to it. I just don’t see why I’d go for the syrupy, slushie treat when I can opt for the creamy, flavourful gelato. Oh yes, there is such a thing as Hawaiian gelato, people, and it’s freaking amazing!
I made the gelato discovery when I first strolled the streets of Lahaina and saw the lights inside Ono Gelato. I was drawn in like a moth to a flame, and was sampling flavours within seconds. I opted for the coffee-flavoured gelato, combining two of my favourite things ever. It was so good I had one every single day I was there. Another favourite gelato shop is Banyan Treats, just a few blocks down from Ono, and across the street from the giant Banyan Tree. The Kona Mud Pie there is just to
die travel for.
That was a tasty trip down memory lane! I have to admit, most of the stuff I tried were not what you’d call typical Hawaiian foods, but they were certainly perfected by Hawaiians. The only thing I’m left with is an insatiable appetite for all I the food I tried in Maui (and Lana’i, which is part of Maui county), and some itchy feet to head out once more to the paradise I left a week ago. Next time, poi, I’m coming after you!
Are you hungry yet? I am! More food porn can be found here, on my Instagram (@portjam if you’re nasty!)