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How to enjoy Hawaiian Food

I’m part Hawaiian which you can’t tell from my pictures. I look more like my Mom but my sister looks very Hawaiian. Anyway, because I’m Hawaiian as I was growing up I got introduced by my family to lots of Hawaiian culture and especially Hawaiian food.

I think most people that go to Hawaii don’t get to try Hawaiian food. Hawaiian food is NOT a hamburger with pineapple on it nor is it pizza with ham and pineapple nor is it a piece of chicken with sweet pineapple sauce on it. In fact, though I know that Hawaii has a pineapple image if you go to the Del Monte pineapple patch you’ll find out that pineapples are originally from Brazil. They are not native to Hawaii at all.

Anyway, for the benefit of adventurous eaters I thought I’d put up a description of Hawaiian food along with some tips on how to eat it, what to expect and some places to get it.

Somebody can correct me if I’m wrong because all my information comes from my family not from some history book.

the ti leaves from a lau-lau

The main dish that I’m used to eating is called a Lau-Lau (like Cow-Cow except with an L instead of a C). As an aside, Cow-Cow (spelt Kau-Kau) means food in Hawaiian.

A Lau-Lau is made from Butterfish wrapped in Luau Leaf (pronounced Lou, rhymes with Poo and Ou like in Ouch. Lou-Ou. It’s like spinach) which is then wrapped in a Ti leaf (pronounced Tea) and then it’s steamed. Of course people put other things inside like pork or chicken but the original is butterfish. When you get one you have to take the Ti leaves off as they are not edible and you are left with the rest.

the inside of a lau-lau

I was surprised when I was a kid because for some reason in lots of cartoons and comics it was made clear to me that kids supposedly don’t like spinach but I always loved lau-laus and often people substitute spinach for the luau leaf and it still tastes great. It must be because of the flavor it inherits from the Ti leaves.

Anyway, you cut it open it will look like you see it here. Generally you need to add salt and if you can you should use Hawaiian salt.

Hawaiian salt

Hawaiian salt is not as salty as table salt and it’s got much larger grains and it’s also red. The red come from Hawaiian dust.

The next most common Hawaiian food I know of is called Kalua pig or Kalua pork) It’s pronounced the same as the drink, Kahlua but there’s no Kahlua in Kalua pig. Kalua pig was originally made by taking a whole pig, cutting it open along the belly, taking out the guts and rubbing some salt along the inside. Then, taking some very hot stones from a fire, putting them inside the pig, closing it up and burying it in the ground for 4 hours. Now-a-days I think mostly they just add spices to the pork to make it taste similar. If you’ve ever had Mexican carnitas, Kalua pig tastes similar though they are both distinct from each other that’s the next closest pork I’ve tasted.

Kalua pig

After Kalua pig comes Poke. Most people on the islands pronounce it Pokey (like Gumby’s red pal) but I think it’s pronounced Poke (rhymes with Okay). Otherwise it would be spelled Poki in Hawaiian. Anyway, it’s basically raw fish salad. Now, before you go "Yuck!" lots of cultures eat raw fish. The Japanese are famous for it with sushi and sashimi and of course there are bagels and lox which come from northern Europe I believe. I’m almost sure the Irish, Scottish and the English must eat some kind of fish as they live on islands.

Ahi Poke

Anyway, saying poke is almost like saying salad. There’s a zillion different kinds but they are all generally about some kind of seafood mixed with other stuff. I saw on the Food Channel that at a super market on the big island of Hawaii they have 140 kinds of poke in their deli section.

Here you see Ahi poke. Ahi is a kind of tuna found in the waters near Hawaii. You don’t need to add anything to poke as it’s already got spices in the mix. But, unlike Japanese sashimi which you eat one piece at a time and rather slowly you generally chow down on poke.

Lomi Salmon

Lomi Salmon (pronounced Low Me) is the next item on the list. It’s very similar to Mexican Ceviche. It’s basically tomatoes, onions and salmon. It’s a little on the salty side which brings up everybody’s favorite Hawaiian food discussion topic….

Poi. Poi is made from mashing up Taro root. I supposed you could say it’s kind of like mashed potatoes. It serves the same purpose as potatoes or rice in other cultures. It’s the filler, the starch, the blander thing you eat with other more spicy things.

A bowl of Poi

Poi can be described as gray pudding. Think of rice porridge like malt-o-meal or cream of wheat. It’s served cold or at room temp. Real Hawaiians eat it with their fingers but you can eat it with a spoon. Although many Hawaiians like it plain the best way to eat it for the un-initiated is to eat a spoonful of lomi-samlon (which is salty) and then a spoonful of poi before you’ve swallowed the salmon.

It was funny to us Hawaiians because we went to a fancy restaurant in Hawaii, Roy’s, and they happen to have poke and poi on their menu. We ordered the poi and we asked for a large bowl. They brought out a bowl about the size of a pudding cup (like maybe half of a coffee mug). That’s not a bowl of poi to a Hawaiian it’s a joke. We asked them to please bring us a real bowl of poi and they brought a reasonable sized bowl though they joked that they might have to go to the store and get some. I turns out that lots of people see it on the menu and want to try it but as they generally do not like it the restaurant usually gives them about one spoonful in a paper sampler cup (about big enough for 3 to 5 jellybeans)

To give you an idea
about poi and Hawaiians we went to 3 stores searching for poi to eat with our meal and every store was sold out and every store had a rack for poi. In other words it wasn’t like they only stocked a couple of bags. They generally carry quite a bit.

Dried Fish

The last picture I have of Hawaiian food is dried fish (or fish jerky). It takes like you’d expect jerky to taste. Salty. There are lots of kind of this too. Different fish, different spices etc…

Unfortunately I forgot to take a few more pictures. Next time I go to Hawaii I’ll try to get those but for now you’ll just have to use your imagination. Here’s what’s missing.

Chicken Long Rice: Chicken long rice is made with Chinese long rice noodles which are long noodles, longer than spaghetti, made from rice and when they are cooked then turn completely clear. Chicken long rice is chicken and those noodles and some spices like soy sauce. It’s almost like a soup except that the noodles are so plentiful. Hawaiians often say "shoyu" instead of soy sauce. Shoyu (pronounced Show You) is the Japanese word word for soy sauce.

Squid Luau: I have no idea how to describe this. I’ve only had it a couple of times. It seemed like a soup.

Haupia: (How-Pee-Ah) This is one of my favorite things. It’s basically coconut pudding but it’s stiff enough that you can hold it in your hand. I think it’s made from coconut, corn starch and sugar. I always buy 2 "bricks" of it. One to eat during my Hawaiian food pig out and the other to eat during the rest of my stay a few slices a day

Kulolo: (Coo as in Cool. Coo-Low-Low) I’m not sure what this is but I think it’s made from coconut and it looks like of like a very dense piece of brown bread, like banana bread but more dense, more brown and more wet. Very good. Last time I went to Hawaii though the place I went was out of it and they said the person that makes it for them was on vacation for 2 weeks. :-(

Rice: I’m pretty sure rice was not a part of Hawaiian culture originally but it is now.

Loco-Moco: I’d really like to know the origin of this dish. I’d guess it comes from some surfer that didn’t know how to cook or he was in a hurry. It’s basically white steamed rice, an fried egg, a hamburger patty and beef gravy. You can get it all over the islands.

Saimin: (Sai rhymes with eye. Min as in minute) Basically the same as Top Ramen or Cup of Noodles. I’m not sure of the exact different between saimin and ramen. If I was to guess I’d say saimin noodles are thinner than ramen noodles but I really have no idea but you can get it everywhere including McDonalds.

Spam Musubi: Moo (like a cow sound) Sue Bee. This is another one I don’t quite get the origin of but you can find it everywhere. It looks like a piece of sushi with spam on top. Hawaiians love spam. Spam and eggs is great. Spam sandwiches on King’s Hawaiian Bread and Spam Musubi. By the way, King’s Hawaiian Bread is really not Hawaiian bread it’s Portuguese bread. You can read right on the package in small print. I knew this though because before King’s Hawaiian Bread became popular my family used to eat Portuguese Sweet Bread as it’s been a part of Hawaiian culture since the Portuguese came to Hawaii.

Okay, so now that I’ve got you all salivating to try Hawaiian food…

I’m not an authority on where the best places are but I can tell you where I’ve had it and where I like it. If it was up to me, the best place to get Hawaiian food is at Rugers Market on Oahu near Diamondhead. From the last hotel on Waikiki, the Park Shore, which is across from the zoo, it’s probably a 20
minute walk or a 5 minute car ride. When you get there you won’t know it as it’s just a small store with no windows, just doors. Inside is a counter and a few small rows of groceries. If the weather is nice you can get your food and then eat it in the park that you passed on the way. Otherwise you’ll have to take it back to your room. Assuming 3 or 4 people here’s what you should order

  • 2 to 4 lau-laus. You can have them take the Ti leaves off but I prefer to have them leave them on so you can see them
  • 1 pint of kalua pig
  • 1 pint of ahi poke. If they ask what kind or what you want in it just ask them to make their favorite
  • 1 half pint of lomi-salmon
  • 1 half pint of poi (unless you think you’ll like it then get a pint)
  • 1 pint of chicken long rice
  • 1 brick of haupia
  • 1 kololo
  • one cup of rice for each person
  • one extra bowl for each person (so you can eat it)
  • anything else you want to try

They will have some utensils so make sure to get what you need. You can get some drinks there too. Then take it all somewhere and PIG OUT!! ;-) The word to use is "Ono" as in Oh No. In Hawaiian it means Delicious!

Map to Rugers Market

Here’s map to Rugers Market. If you are trying to look it up it might be listed as Fort Rugers Market instead of just Rugers Market

If you are not up for all that there are other places you can go but in my opinion none of them are as good.

The Willows

There’s "The Willows". The Willows is an old restaurant that’s recently been refurbished. They have a Hawaiian buffet so you can try lots of the stuff there. It’s a very pretty restaurant but I didn’t think the food was as good as Rugers Market.

The Ala Moana Food Court. There’s a Hawaiian fast food place at the food court at the Ala Moana mall. Not great but not bad for a quick fix.

In Los Angeles you can go to Kings Hawaiian Bread Restaurant in Torrance and they have a Hawaiian Sampler plate. It’s just okay but also good for a fix.

Marukai: This is a supermarket that sells some Hawaiian foods.

Personally I’d recommend not going to the last 4 places until you’ve tried Rugers. They aren’t bad at all but it’s kind of like going to Taco Bell as your first Mexican food experience

  • gogirl808

    The best place in town for Hawaiian food is Ono’s Hawaiian Food. 1 lau lau can feed 2 people and its ONO!! They got everything else there. Beef luau, combo plates that include that huge lau lau with lomi salmon, kalua pig, haupia etc.. na’au, poke, butterfish luau, squid luau. But go early cause they are known to run out of their lau laus, and the line can get rather long!

  • Pingback: How To Cook The Hawaiian Luau Pig | eBook Review

  • Pingback: How To Cook The Hawaiian Luau Pig | eBook Review

  • George Boukarim

    you say food as ‘Mea’ai’, not ‘Kau-Kau’
    D: