There’s a reason why Hawaiian food restaurants have lines going out the door. Feasts of poi, kalua pig, lomi salmon and haupia are the culinary soul of Hawaii, as much a part of island life as shaka signs, surf sessions and windward and mauka showers.
Locals start early. Poi is the first solid food given to island babies, and by the time kids grow up and venture away for school, business trips or life in distant locales, they’re planning their first meals back home at their favorite Hawaiian restaurants well before the plane lands.
If you’ve never tried Hawaiian food, here are some tips and a primer of favorite dishes. Follow these and you’ll be digging in like a local.
Order different dishes and share. Hawaiian food is about flavors that contrast and complement. A feast of meaty, salty, creamy, sweet and starchy dishes will give you the full panoply of flavors the way locals prefer it — family style. If you find a dish you love, just order more.
Let your spoon or fork travel. Put some lomi salmon on your spoon, then some poi, eat. Squid luau, kalua pork, eat. Try different combos and see what you like. It’s all about balancing the flavors.
Yes, it’s perfectly fine to eat your entire meal with a spoon. Especially if you’re eating poi.
Order the small poi. Locals love it, but poi is an acquired taste. It’s also a labor-intensive dish whose sole ingredient — kalo, the root of the taro plant — is sensitive to rainfall and other weather conditions. Occasional shortages are a source of angst, so if it’s your first time trying poi, better to start with a small bowl.
Not into poi? Get some rice. It’s all about balance, remember? Hawaiian salt brings out the flavors of kalua pig, lau lau, lomi salmon and pipikaula — and other favorites like Hawaiian-style beef stew and salt meat watercress. These onolicious dishes will be happiest with a starch to complement.
Order lau lau or kalua pig — both, if you really love pork. Both dishes feature succulent pork seasoned with Hawaiian salt. Lau lau cocoons chunks of it in softly steamed luau or taro leaves, while kalua pork is roasted in an underground oven and shredded and seasoned while still hot.
Poke is Hawaiian food! Yes, the Continental U.S.’s hottest food trend is part of a traditional Hawaiian feast. Every restaurant has its own recipe. At Helena’s Hawaiian Food it’s all about old-style: There’s no soy sauce in the poke, and raw opihi shellfish tops the fresh ahi if you’re lucky. At Yama’s Fish Market, your takeout Hawaiian plate comes with the ahi, octopus or smoked salmon poke of your choice.
If you like cooked spinach, you’ll love luau. This savory dish of cooked taro leaves isn’t pretty — it looks like creamed spinach, with a similar texture — but rich, slightly sweet notes of coconut milk make it a winner. Most Hawaiian restaurants offer squid luau; some also offer a chicken option.
That pale orange condiment in the sauce bottle? It’s chili pepper water, a homemade favorite. Best squirted onto meat dishes like kalua pig, lau lau and fried turkey tails. It’s more of a gentle fire than a heat-seeking missile.
Come hungry and forget the diet. You won’t find any salads on a traditional Hawaiian menu. Light eaters will do best with poke, lomi salmon mixed with fresh tomato and onion, and chicken long rice, a simple, soupy dish whose clear noodles are gluten-free.
Afterwards, plan for a hike, shopping, beach time — or a nap. Locals call the food coma that follows a big meal a ‘kanak attack.’ Be warned.
Your Hawaiian food feast starts with:
Poi—Steamed taro root pounded and mixed with water
Kalua pig—Savory shredded pork roasted in an underground oven, or imu
Lau lau—Chunks of pork shoulder seasoned with Hawaiian salt, wrapped in thick layers of soft taro leaves and steamed inside ti leaves
Lomi salmon—Diced salted salmon, raw tomato and white onion mixed together in a fresh, crunchy, savory dish vaguely reminiscent of a chunky salsa
Squid luau—Taro leaves cooked with coconut milk and small pieces of squid or octopus
Poke—Cubes of the freshest raw fish, tossed with seasonings like soy, sesame oil and onions. Virtually every grocery store in Hawaii, including chains like Whole Foods and Safeway, has a fresh poke bar
Pipikaula—Beef strips marinated in soy and other seasonings and dried. Usually resembles beef jerky. At Helena’s it’s thicker, softer, meatier; the house special
Haupia—Coconut milk pudding. Served as plain, unadorned squares. There’s always room for haupia.