If your exposure to Hawaiian cuisine is limited to a certain kitschy combination of pizza toppings, this collection of recipes will be eye-opening. Thanks to the islands’ diverse history of settlers, the food displays influence from cultures including Polynesian, Japanese, Korean, American and even Portuguese. Combine all of those culinary traditions with Hawaii’s delicious local fish, and you get one incredible fusion cuisine.
Before Polynesian seafarers arrived on the islands around 300 AD, Hawaii’s edible plant life was sparse. Luckily, the new residents had packed smart and came prepared to plant fruits and tubers like taro, coconuts, sweet potatoes and breadfruit. They also brought livestock—pigs and chickens. Traditional meals included poi (mashed taro root), fruit and fish or pork cooked over hot coals, spit-roasted over a fire or roasted in an earthen oven (in the same way that pork is still cooked for traditional luaus today). In the late 1800s, immigrant workers from China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Portugal moved to the islands to work on the fast-growing sugarcane plantations. They brought foods like char siu (roast pork), sweet bread, kimchi and noodle soups, and infused them with the produce planted long ago by the Polynesians.
Those dishes still make up much of modern-day Hawaiian cuisine, though newer preparations get plenty of attention: Poke is an addictive seasoned raw seafood salad, and loco moco is a classic combination of hamburger patty over rice with gravy and a fried egg. And then there's Spam. Introduced to the islands by American GIs in World War II, Spam caught on quickly in Hawaii and remains popular today in dishes like Spam musubi, fried rice and saimin (noodle soup).
There was a time when Hawaiian cuisine was threatened by an influx of imported ingredients and chefs working from mainland American recipes. But in 1991, a group of 12 Hawaiian chefs, including Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong and George Mavrothalassitis, came together to draft up a working definition for Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC), which celebrated Hawaii's locally grown produce. The chefs championed local farmers and helped kick-start a movement to rescue and celebrate the melting pot that is Hawaiian food.
While Hawaiian food is best eaten on a sunny, white-sand beach, it can and should be made at home. Here, our best classic and updated recipes for Hawaiian food, including easy-to-make shrimp poke, charred barbecued short ribs and kimchi-spiked Spam musubi (which we promise will turn you into a Spam apologist).