A Guide to Hawaii's Comfort Food
“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
- James Beard
Ah, the comfort foods of Hawaii—I’m not referring to the traditional Polynesian cuisine emulated at a resort luau, but rather the local grindz (foods), oversized portions of multiethnic, cross cultural, and hybrid dishes. Here in Hawaii, you can forget about counting calories as local cuisine never fails to be hearty and sinfully delicious. For the newbies looking for a little “in,” we’re here to provide an essential guide to some of the most popular local food dishes.
Any hole-in-the-wall diner, mom and pop stand, food truck, or Hawaiian barbeque kitchen will customarily prepare the best comfort food on the island. These robust foods continue to be staple menu items for one reason—they’re incredibly good. Let’s begin with breakfast. Check out any local dining spot and your morning wake-up call will start with a plethora of meat options, canned or un-canned, usually including choices of Portuguese sausage, Vienna sausage, link sausage, bacon and, of course, the “Hawaiian steak,” SPAM. Take your pick of one (or more) of these meats and add sides of “two scoops” of white rice, eggs and toast. This assortment is a filling way to start the day and definitely won’t leave you hungry. Another breakfast favorite would be the savory fried rice. You will find that there are many restaurants and diners that claim to be “home of the best fried rice in Hawaii.” You be the judge. The usual mix of white rice, breakfast meats, eggs, vegetables and Asian-inspired sauces are combined to create a meal that will leave your taste buds happy.
For those with no time to sit and dine, we recommend the wildly popular SPAM musubi. Praised for its portability and flavorsome qualities, musubis are a culmination of local foods rolled into one. While recipes vary, the typical musubi includes grilled SPAM that is cooked plain or with teriyaki sauce. The SPAM, sometimes with a fried egg and furikake (sesame seeds and seaweed flakes), is placed either on top or sandwiched between layers of white rice before being wrapped in nori (thin sheet of seaweed). It’s much like a larger version of sushi except the high quality raw fish is substituted with processed canned meat. For those not too keen on SPAM, musubis are also made with varieties of other meats including chicken, beef, fish and hot dogs. Hungry on the goers can easily pick up this affordable meal (usually around $2) at any convenient store or grocery deli.
When it comes to lunchtime, there is one thing that is synonymous with local island cuisine—plate lunch. When standing in line at a local barbeque restaurant, you will most commonly see the title Plate Lunch with dozens of yummy food options listed. Don’t be intimidated. Derived from Hawai‘i’s multiethnic fusion of cultures, plate lunches are basically tasty dishes from varied ethnic groups, portioned into one meal. The common choices from Japanese chicken katsu (panko-breaded chicken) and teriyaki beef to kalua pork (Hawaiian smoked pork) or Korean curry serve as entrée options. Choose one main dish or combine multiple—the options are usually endless. “Two scoops rice” and “one scoop macaroni salad” always accompany the traditional plate lunch, as rice is the essential starch while macaroni salad also presents a counterpart to the main courses. But these are only a few of the many entrées, as restaurants are constantly cooking up tasty meals to please the locals. Don’t be surprised to see plate lunches at all times of the day either—they are also popular dinner options as well.
If a plate lunch seems like too much for your stomach, go for the saimin. This noodle soup dish derives from traditional Japanese cuisine developed during the island’s plantation days of the early 1900s. The soup features wheat noodles in a hot broth of dashi (Japanese style broth). Add won bok cabbage, mustard cabbage, green onion, kamaboko (Japanese cured seafood product) and egg to make it a more satisfying meal. Saimin is a warm and comforting dish, perfect for cool evenings, rainy days or just about anytime.
But the mother of all island favorites is the loco moco, a combination of several food items that you probably wouldn’t consider pairing. While there are a number of variations of this meal, the conventional recipe calls for a serving of white rice topped with a grilled hamburger patty, a fried egg and smothered with brown gravy. While this may not sound appealing, the flavors blend to create a taste that is exceptionally delicious.
Another monumental local favorite is the traditional Hawaiian appetizer that has become a staple here in the islands—poke. Fresh, raw island fish like ahi tuna is cubed and marinated in sea salt, soy sauce, sesame oil, limu (seaweed) and chopped chili peppers or diced onions. While this is just one version of the preparation, poke can be made in various ways. Traditional Hawaiian style includes just the basic ingredients of sea salt and limu. Over the years, Asian influences, local vegetables and a wide variety of other fishes have contributed to the many different recipes like kimchee tako (octopus) poke, spicy ahi and marlin poke.
So whether sitting in a tucked away diner or stopping at one of the Hawaiian barbeque chains, the options for local grindz are endless. Enjoy the many different flavors and ethnic dishes all fused into one “plate lunch.” These foods are a true taste of Hawaii’s local culture.