The Flavors of Hawaii, From A to Z
The most pristine "ahi (the Hawaiian word for tuna) can now be overnighted to your door courtesy of Honolulu Fish. Founded by a marine biologist and presided over by sashimi experts, this chef favorite specializes in sushi-grade, hook-caught fillets hand-selected each morning at the Honolulu fish market; honolulufish.com.
In Hawai'i, bread means Portuguese sweet bread. And the man who made it a household name, particularly on the mainland, is Robert R. Taira. What began as a tiny Hilo bakery in the 1950s soon expanded to Honolulu's King Street, and now 400,000 square feet of baking facilities in Torrance, California, and Oakwood, Georgia— all within two decades. It's still a family business; a third generation of Tairas has made the fluffy sweet bread an American staple, with King's Hawaiian now the No. 1 branded dinner roll in the United States.
The Cantonese char siu method of preparing barbecued pork has wider applications in Hawai'i, where everything from chicken to wild game is marinated in the soy-based sauce (often with honey, hoisin sauce, and Chinese five-spice) and cooked over fire.
- Recipe: Char Siu Baby Back Ribs
Native to Central and South America, dragon fruit is increasingly being grown in Hawai'i, Thailand, and other places with tropical climes. The two most common types have bright red skin, and flesh that tastes like a cross between a kiwi and a pear.
The dish that has come to epitomize Hawaiian plate-lunch cuisine is also a poster child of the current put-an-egg-on-it culinary moment. A twist on Salisbury steak, loco moco typically consists of a fried egg balanced atop a mountain of hamburger and sticky rice saturated in brown gravy.
- Recipe: Short Rib Loco Moco
A dried blend of seaweed, sesame seeds, fish flakes, salt, and other seasonings, furikake (which literally translates to "sprinkle over") is often served on rice or sushi rolls, and in party mix.
Honolulu native Ravi Kapur is one of the brightest minds in a new crop of young chefs redefining Hawaiian food on the mainland. At his Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco, the food and decor deliberately shies away from the expected (think housemade "Spam" and a dearth of tiki torches), but the restaurant mantra remains "Get Jag," island slang for "hang loose."
Hormel, Creator of Spam
Hormel claims its most famous creation, Spam, was named from the combination of the words "spice" and "ham." First released in 1937, Spam developed a worldwide following when 100 million pounds were shipped to Allied troops during World War II. But it was U.S. sanctions restricting deep-sea fishing industries, mainly run by Japanese- Americans at the time, that made it such an integral source of protein in Hawai'i. Following the war, a wave of Korean and Japanese immigrants helped cement Spam's status in Hawaiian cuisine with contributions like musubi, a cooked slab of Spam on a block of rice bound with nori.
Unlike a snow cone, Hawaiian shave ice, purchased at roadside stands like Ululani's on Maui, is ground to a powdery texture that better holds syrups in flavors both sweet (cherry) and tangy (liliko'i).
Originally brought over by Spanish colonialists, jicama has been embraced by Hawaiian cuisine. Purchase this under-the-radar root vegetable—some call it a “savory apple”—in Latin American supermarkets, and cut into matchstick slices for a water chestnut-like crunch with your salad.
Cultivated on the slopes of the Hualālai and Mauna Loa volcanoes of the Big Island, Kona coffee's unique growing conditions (high elevation, mineral-rich soils) yield some of the world's best and priciest beans.
A sausage introduced by Portuguese sugar plantation workers in the late 19th century, linguiça is now ubiquitous in Hawai'i. Today's slightly sweeter style can be found in soups and pastries, and even on local McDonald's menus. Get your fix from Hawaiian purveyors such as Rego's Purity, which ships throughout the United States; regospurity.com.
Another Portuguese import, malasadas are holeless doughnuts enriched with butter, eggs, and sometimes milk. Although typically only rolled in sugar, variations include those filled with custard or haupia, a kind of coconut pudding.
- Recipe: Coconut-Glazed Malasadas
Nori—dried, edible seaweed sheets—make their way into a number of Hawai'i's favorite snack foods, including popcorn and Spam musubi.
Hawaii's only native spirit, 'Ōkolehao, is a sweet and earthy ti-root moonshine that fell out of favor in the mid-20th century. Now Dave Flintstone of O'ahu-based Island Distillers is helping to bring it back using ancient recipes found in archived newspapers. His Hawaiian Moonshine can already be found in chic cocktail bars like the Hula Grill Waikiki, or you can order a bottle online at islanddistillers.com.
Today, 75 percent of the world's pineapples comes from Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, but the fruit (actually a number of berries that have fused together) is still associated with Hawai'i because of its market dominance in the 19th century. For a real treat, try the super sweet Maui Gold variety, grown exclusively on the slopes of Haleakalā; pineapplemaui.com.
In 1955, Ernest Morgado cooked chicken sandwiched between two grills, a setup that eliminated the need to flip each piece of meat. The original teriyaki-style BBQ sauce slathered on top he dubbed huli-huli, a Hawaiian word for "turn." Morgado soon began bottling his sauce, eventually trademarking the name in 1986.
The majority of the world's rum now comes from Latin America, but enterprising brands like O'ahu's Kō Hana are trying to bring Hawai'i back to its rum-producing heyday, between 1874 (when bans on rum distillation were lifted) and the mid-20th century; kohanarum.com. Put this reemerging Hawaiian export to good use in a luscious panna cotta topped with caramel rum sauce.
- Recipe: Macadamia-Rum Panna Cotta
Shoyu chicken is a Hawaiian plate-lunch favorite that consists of chicken marinated or simmered in shoyu, garlic, sugar, and other spices. Brine in coconut milk to ensure a tender, slightly sweet bird, then dunk in our mayo-sambal sauce for a final creamy kick.
Taro, a staple of the Native Hawaiian diet, has a number of culinary uses. But the starchy tuber is best known for poi, a singular Hawaiian dish made from cooked, mashed, and fermented taro root.
Sea urchins harbor one of the ocean's most decadent bites: uni, the briny, buttery reproductive glands located inside the urchin's spiny endoskeleton.
Jim and Tracy Reddekopp's Hawaiian Vanilla Company in Pa'auilo is a pioneer in the vanilla trade, having launched the first commercial operation in the United States. Nearly two decades in, the Reddekopps' farm is producing pods that can compete with the Madagascars and Tahitis of the world; hawaiianvanilla.com.
Closely related to king mackerel, wahoo has a firm texture, moderate oil content, and sweet-tasting flesh prized by both island chefs and sportfishermen. Serve over a bed of rice, or for an appetizer version of this Hawaiian staple, spoon onto crunchy Taro chips.
- Recipe: Wahoo Poke
Xiphias gladius (swordfish)
If you're eating Xiphias gladius (swordfish), chances are it came from Hawai'i. Most American wholesalers acquire their inventory for domestic and export sales from the Honolulu Fish Auction, where some of the world's best bigeye tuna and mahi-mahi are also on display.
This meat-free spin on the Japanese izakaya classic, means you can break out the grill and still make the most of hearty root vegetables. Alternate between the copper tones of fingerling sweet potatoes and purple-fleshed Okinawans for a colorful skewer ready for a drizzle of fragrant pineapple glaze.
Whether spiking fresh fruit, shave ice, or gummy bears, Hawaiians love li hing mui, a salty, sour zest made from salted dried plums and licorice.