The Best Foods to Try in Hawaii

Hawaiian plate with Lau Lau

It’s no secret that Hawaii is a cultural melting pot, and the state’s food scene is certainly a true reflection of it. From the first Polynesian settlers who arrived to the islands 1,500 years ago to the plantation workers from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Portugal in the 1800s, a variety of strong and vibrant cultures helped turn Hawaii into what it is today.

The result? A rich mixture of culinary specialties that have developed over time into comfort foods that are totally unique to the Hawaiian Islands. So before you book that ticket, take some time to get to know the most popular foods in the islands, from poke and poi to saimin and musubi.

Thanks to a new generation of foodie masterminds, there are even some culinary traditions still in development today. Learn everything to know about Hawaii’s favorite foods (and where to find the best) with this guide to the most popular foods in the islands.

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Saimin

Saimin noodle soup

Anyone who has traveled to Hawaii knows that the state has an ongoing love affair with noodles. Saimin was developed during the plantation era, when Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese workers would often share and mix their culture’s signature noodle dishes with their coworkers. The outcome was a delicious fusion of light dashi-based broth and springy wheat noodles topped with fish cake (kamaboko), green onions, and char sui pork.

For those wondering the difference between saimin and the other popular noodles of Hawaii, such as ramen, saimin is usually categorized for its clearer broth and lighter noodles. Saimin noodles are made of both wheat flour and eggs, while ramen noodles don’t have egg.

For the best saimin in Hawaii, check out Star Noodle on Maui or Hamura Saimin Stand on Kauai.

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Malasada

Malasadas in Hawaii

Deep-fried, dusted in sugar, and often filled with sweet flavored custard, malasadas are the Portuguese version of a donut. These tasty treats were originally reserved for the plantation workers who came over from Portugal in the 1800s until Leonard Rego opened Leonard’s Bakery on Oahu in 1953 and made them available to the masses. Leonard’s is still open to this day in Honolulu and continues to make the best malasadas in the state if you ask us.

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Poi

Fresh fish and poi in Hawaii

This unique condiment is made from the most important plant in Hawaiian culture. No, it’s not pineapple, but a starchy root vegetable called taro (or kalo in the Hawaiian language). The taro root is pounded and then fermented into poi.

Taro was so instrumental to the survival of the early Hawaiians, that taro became attached to the legends and history of the islands.

Most visitors come and go without giving poi a chance, even though it is included on almost every luau table in Hawaii. In any case, know that poi is best enjoyed alongside Hawaiian food staples such as lau lau and kalua pig. Head to Helena’s Hawaiian Food on Oahu to try poi as it should be, paired with a big plate of Hawaiian food!

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Kalua Pork

Hawaiian kalua pork plate

You haven’t had pork until you’ve had it slow-cooked and roasted in an underground imu oven. If you do go to a luau, chances are it will include an imu ceremony and traditional unveiling of the whole pig that has been cooking underground wrapped in banana leaves all day. The Hawaiian plate lunch just wouldn't be the same without it.

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Poke

Poke at the beach in Hawaii

While this popular dish was traditionally made by local fishermen who seasoned the end pieces of their daily catch with salt and seaweed, poke has since turned into one of Hawaii’s most iconic foods. Bite-sized pieces of raw fish marinated in shoyu, Hawaiian sea salt, onion, and limu seaweed, good poke is still all about freshness and quality. 

In Hawaii, poke can be found in hole-in-the-wall joints and upscale restaurants alike, and has even started gaining momentum on the mainland. Try Fresh Catch or Maguro Brothers on Oahu or Da Poke Shack on the Big Island.

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Lau Lau

Lau Lau with pork at a Hawaiian restaurant

Packed with pork or fish (sometimes both), wrapped in taro leaf and steamed slowly, unfolding a freshly cooked Lau Lau is one of life’s small pleasures. Ono Hawaiian Foods on Oahu and Pono Market on Kauai serves up some of the best Lau Lau in Hawaii. Don't forget to add some chili pepper water!

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Spam Musubi

Spam musubi wrapped in plastic

Made of sushi rice topped with seasoned spam and wrapped in nori seaweed, musubi is the perfect grab-and-go snack for fueling a Hawaiian adventure.

The origins of Spam musubi are varied (as with many things in Hawaii, it depends on who you ask). It combines the Japanese onigiri, balls of rice usually wrapped with nori seaweed and filled with meat, and spam, which first became popular in Hawaii during WWII.

Ask around, and you’ll be surprised to learn that most locals go straight to 7-11 for their spam musubi, though we also urge you to check out some locally-run establishments such as Cafe Iyasume in Honolulu. The Waikiki Yokocho food hall on Oahu even has a counter of musubi made with high-quality organic brown and red rice.

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Haupia

Chocolate haupia pie

A coconut-based dessert with a jello-meets-pudding consistency, haupia is another staple on your Hawaiian plate or luau dinner. Try it in pie form (you won’t be disappointed) combined with chocolate and whipped cream at Ted’s Bakery on the north shore of Oahu.

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Huli Huili Chicken

Huli Huli Chicken at the farmers market in Waimea

Whole birds based in sweet sauce and rotated slowly over a hot barbeque (huli is the Hawaiian word for “turn”), you’ll often find local schools and fundraisers using this method of cooking to cook for large numbers. The best Huli Huli chicken is cooked over kiawe wood, a type of native Hawaiian mesquite.

The roadside Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken and Ray’s Kiawe Broiled Chicken on Oahu are both deliciously iconic.

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Portuguese Sausage

Breakfast with Portuguese sausage

Katherine Gallagher 

It's hard to find a Hawaiian beach barbecue that doesn't include a link or two of Portuguese sausage on the grill, and once you have your first bite of the salty, spicy goodness, you’ll see why.

When it comes to breakfast in Hawaii, bacon isn’t always king. You’re more likely to find your eggs served with a hefty serving of sliced Portuguese sausage. If you’re in the mood for a great breakfast on Oahu, Sweet E’s Cafe and Liliha Bakery are a great place to start.

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Shave Ice

Shave ice at Matsumotos in Hawaii

Katherine Gallagher 

Shave ice can trace its heritage back to the Japanese treat, kakigori. Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii to work in the pineapple and sugarcane fields used to use their tools to shave flakes off large blocks of ice before coating it with fresh sugar or fruit juice. When the plantations closed or their employment ended, some families chose to stay in Hawaii and open small general stores selling groceries and shave ice. Some of these shops, including Matsumoto’s Shave Ice on Oahu, are still around today. Remember, don’t call it “shaved ice.”

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Garlic Shrimp

Garlic shrimp from a food truck in Hawaii

Katherine Gallagher 

It’s buttery, garlicky, and shrimpy, what’s not to love? This dish was made super popular by the food trucks that dot the coastline in north shore Oahu. Though each truck has its own unique style and take on the dish, Giovannis, Fumi’s, and Romy’s are some of the best.

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