Think of Hawaii and you’ll conjure up images of beautiful beaches and dramatic volcanic landscapes – but have you ever considered the cuisine? Whilst traditional fayre abounds, more recent, Americanised food stuffs have made their way in to the hearts of Hawaiians. When visiting the islands however, you’ve got to tempt your palette with the local grub. So without further ado, these are the must try foods in the Aloha State!
Whenever I think of SPAM, I remember the slightly rusted tin conveniently left in the back of the cupboard and forgotten about at my grandparents’ house. For those uneducated in the delights of SPAM, it is not just a term for junk mail, but also the name of a junk food. It is a highly celebrated, highly salted lump of cooked meat – apparently a mixture of pork and ham – and is so beloved in Hawaii that there is even a festival dedicated to the pink foodstuff every year in Honolulu, the Waikiki SPAM Jam.
The Americans introduced Spam to Hawaii during WW2. Since then, it has become a firm favourite in Hawaiian households, even making it on to most menus. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack – apparently, SPAM has a place at all meals. SPAM Musabi – a terrible bastardisation of sushi – can be procured in every supermarket. Traditionally, SPAM is just SPAM, but in Hawaii, it comes in a multitude of flavours unavailable anywhere else in the world – Teryaki SPAM, anyone?
Hawaiian Style Cafe Pancakes
There’s an eatery in Hilo on the Big Island called Hawaiian Style Café. Famed throughout the town for producing probably the biggest pancakes in the world (on a menu, at least), these colossal cakes cannot be eaten by one person in one sitting (believe me – I tried). A pancake order consists of two astronomically enormous pancakes, each 2” thick and both the diameter of a large frisbee. Half a packet of butter (this is no exaggeration) merrily melts on the top whilst a jug of maple syrup accompanies this. When I first encountered these extreme pancakes, I thought the butter was ice cream and ate most of it in one go. Do not make this mistake!
If you order a side of bacon, be warned – the side is actually most of a pig. To say Hawaiian Style Café feeds you well is an understatement. You will roll out of the café rather than walk, and have enough leftovers for another two meals at least.
It’s not just pancakes they do, but all sorts of Hawaiian fare, including plate lunches and the ever-popular SPAM. The food is homecooked and delicious and the service is excellent. There’s almost always a queue to get a table and locals love it. If you want an eating challenge, put Hawaiian Style Café on your list!
Shave Ice is exactly what it sounds like. Bizarrely popular, this concoction consists of ice which has been shaved, then flavoured with E numbers and brightly coloured food dye. It is an acquired taste. Hawaiians love it but I personally prefer ice cream. However, if you’re keen to experience it (and you should definitely try it once), head to Waiola Shave Ice in Honolulu, Oahu, which is famed not only for its shave ice offerings, but also for its part in the tv series Hawaii 5-0. There’s also some interesting signs outside said shop warning customers of ‘attack bird’. I didn’t see it (and apparently it didn’t see me!)
Coconut Glens Vegan Ice Cream
The happiest hippy is Coconut Glen, and he makes amazing organic vegan ice cream (using ‘love and coconuts’ rather than dairy) in over 40 dazzling flavours. Salted caramel, ginger, coffee-toffee, chocolate, you name it, he whips it up. Made fresh in the jungle and laying claim to creating some of the best ice creams in the world, Coconut Glen’s other selling point is that his stall is on the Road to Hana, a stunning stretch of road which winds around the rugged coast of Maui. And wind really is the right word – there are 620 curves on this 52 mile road, with 59 bridges to boot. Coconut Glen’s is on Mile Marker 27.5, and aside from the delicious ice cream, there are all sorts of barmy home-made painted signs to keep you entertained while you eat.
Malasadas at the Southern Most Bakery in the USA
Malasadas are a Portuguese fried donut covered in sugar and filled with naughty deliciousness like chocolate, guava or lilikoi (passionfruit). They were introduced by Portuguese labourers who came to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations in 1878, and have become a staple treat throughout the Hawaiian Islands ever since. In Hawaii, Mardi Gras (the day before Lent) is also known Malasada Day. This stems from centuries ago, when the Portuguese would use up all their butter and sugar before Lent began and mix up huge piles of malasadas to share out.
Some of the tastiest can be found at Punalu’u Bake Shop, “The Southernmost Bakery in the USA”, situated in Na’alehu on the Big Island. It’s conveniently located on the drive between the two main centres of Hilo and Kona, and passes Punalu’u Black Sand Beach where you can do some turtle spotting whilst enjoying your baked goods.
Kalo (also known as taro) is an interesting thing. Resembling a sweet potato on the outside, when cooked it becomes a glorious purple. Depending on how it is prepared depends on how edible it appears. Sometimes it is fairly delicious, and at others it is…interesting. For instance, kalo can be used to create a dish called poi, which has a similar consistency, taste and gloop to wallpaper paste.
However, the versatile kalo is also used for laulau, a wonderful piece of (traditionally) pork which is wrapped in the laves of the kalo plant and cooked in an underground oven (imu) for hours until delightfully tender. You don’t eat the leaves, but it’s a great way to taste proper Hawaiian food.Yet another way kalo is prepared is as a bread. Cooked and mashed, the kalo is added to yeast, butter, sugar, milk, eggs, salt and flour and kneaded into a dough. The outside of the bread is ‘bread’ coloured, but the innards turn a lovely shade of purple. For the unexpected eater this comes as quite a surprise!
Kalo in all its fashions can be found everywhere in Hawaii. You can’t leave the islands without experiencing it in one form or another, whether you want to or not!
Each of the major Hawaiian Islands has at least two breweries, and it’s worth making a visit to as many of them as possible to try out their different offerings. Many have restaurants, tours and tastings, so you can feast on delectable fare while sampling the freshest beer on the islands.
The breweries I visited are Maui Brewing Company (Maui), Kona Brewing Company (Big Island), Big Island Brewhaus (Big Island) and Kaua’i Island Brewery (Kaua’i), though there are also plenty of others, including several on Oahu. Personally, I like the pizza at Kona, the beer at Maui, and the surroundings of Kaua’i.
As competition for island brew is fierce, quirky little tactics have been employed by the brewing companies to draw customers in. For instance, Kona Brewing Company bottle caps have Hawaiian pidgin (local dialect) words translated into English on the undersides. I got one which says ‘Loco’ (Crazy), and thought it was so cool I now have it as a key ring. Elsewhere, Kaua’i Island Brewery has a fabulous claim to fame – being the most western brewery in the world! They sell t-shirts with that slogan on them which have integrated bottle openers in them. Genius!
The breweries all have their standard beers but also rotate guest and special brews. When visiting, the tasting ‘flights’ are good value for money – you can try a handful of sample beers of your choosing, so you get to experience several varieties in one sitting.
If you can’t get to the breweries themselves, you can buy beer from local breweries in most grocery stores and bars.
Fumis Kahuku Shrimp Truck
On Oahu, there is a famous Kahuku Shrimp truck, and Fumis is its name. My friends and I made a pilgrimage here to have Kahuku Shrimp, shrimp which is lightly seasoned then heavily sautéed in mouth-watering garlic butter. They also do coconut and ginger shrimp too, along with burgers for those not in the mood for a shrimp feast. Shrimp are served with rice and a slice of pineapple. The food does not disappoint, but in the busy season the queues are enormous. The truck sits forlornly in a car park, with a few picnic benches under a jaunty shade, and doesn’t look particularly special – but never judge a book by its cover. Fumis truck is next to its shrimp farm, so the food is as fresh as fresh can be, and it’s a delightful experience enjoying fresh cooked shrimp watching the world go by.
Hilo Farmers Market
Held every day, with the largest array of stalls on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Hilo Farmers Market is where locals and visitors alike stock up on organic fruits and vegetables, mouth-watering cakes and treats, bread, macadamia butter, guava jelly, locally grown coffee and chocolate, hand crafted soaps, kids clothes, jewellery and gifts. It’s heaving at certain times of the day and shopping there is entertaining and fun, especially when people take their pet parrots.
Living in Hawaii is expensive, but shopping at the market helps to keep costs down, and it’s a great way to interact with locals and learn more about their products. This is real ground root business. Be sure to take lots of reusable bags, as plastic bags are banned on the island.
Hawaii has all sorts of cuisine, from the traditional to the modern. Eating and drinking your way around the islands is a pleasurable way to spend time. While you might not like every food or beverage produced and enjoyed by the islanders, it’s worth trying – just to say you have. You never know, you might become a SPAM fan! You can also visit a luau – a traditional Hawaiian feast prepared in an underground oven and slow cooked until the flavours are perfected, the food succulent and the meat melts in your mouth. For the authentic experience, you really need to befriend some locals and get invited to one of their do’s. If this is not a possibility, there are plenty of luau’s and entertainment events on the islands, with food and a show. You will feel like a tourist, but if you’re in Hawaii you probably are – so you might as well check out a luau and see what it’s all about.
Have you been to Hawaii? What was your favourite foodie experience and why?