Because Hawaii is a place of such diverse cultures, it became inevitable that elements of these cultures would overlap – particularly in the food. Because of it, quite a few new dishes have been created, so, if you are ever in Hawaii, you should be sure to try them. Without further ado, here is a Hawaii food bucket list (from a local).
What Are Some Foods to Try in Hawaii?
Everyone makes fun of Hawaii locals for eating Spam. Well wait until you try it in musubi form. A musubi is traditionally a spam and rice roll wrapped in seaweed, but recently I’ve seen other items added to it, like egg, avocado, and even smoked eel. While locals prefer to get their musubis from 7/11, you can also get some from the nearby ABC stores.
Fun fact: Spam is actually made in Minnesota.
Passion (fruit) Orange Guava Juice. It’s delicious. You can find it at almost any grocery store on the island. Plus, there’s a good chance that it’ll be served at a bunch of local breakfast and brunch spots too.
There’s been a poke craze happening around the world for the past couple of years, so everyone *thinks* they already know poke before they come to the islands. But that’s simply not true, and let me explain why.
Poke on the mainland (a.k.a. the continental U.S.) is essentially unseasoned, cubed raw fish with a bunch of toppings. That’s not authentic poke. The poke in Hawaii has the cubed raw fish sit in a nice marinade to absorb the yummy flavors — and there are no toppings, because all of the deliciousness is in that sauce!
In addition, poke in Hawaii is ALWAYS served on rice. You can find places that’ll put it on brown rice or hapa rice (half white, half brown rice), but it’s usually white rice. (There’s no option to put it on salad or zucchini noodles like I’ve seen outside of the islands).
All of that said, you’re probably wondering where you can have the best poke experience in the islands, and I’ve got you covered. Here are some of the best Waikiki and Honolulu poke spots, the best Oahu poke spots, and the best Maui poke spots to get you started.
Punaluu Bake Shop Bread
Hawaiian sweet bread from Punaluu Bake Shop may be a little harder to find, but trust me, these loaves of heavenly dough are worth it. Baked at the southern-most tip of the United States on the Big Island of Hawaii, the Punaluu Bake Shop sells sweet bread in a variety of my flavors – my favorites being traditional, guava, and taro.
If you’re on the Big Island, pop into the bakery for the freshest loaves and rolls around. But if you’re on one of the other islands, check your local Costco, Sam’s, or Island Country Market.
Poi in Some Form
Poi is a traditional Hawaiian food made of pounded taro. It has an almost ooblek-like consistent, which isn’t my personal favorite, which is why I like it when the poi is baked into a treat, like Hawaiian sweet bread or mochi donuts.
That said, if you want to try traditional poi, you’re in luck! You can find poi at just about any Costco, Foodland, or Whole Foods in the islands. And if you don’t want to grocery shop for it, head to Waiahole Poi Factory on Oahu for a taste and maybe even a poi pounding demonstration.
The most famous places to get malasadas, a type of Portuguese donut, in Hawaii is either at Leonard’s Bakery or Pipeline Bakeshop & Creamery. These treats are definitely a local favorite worth trying. I would recommend the original, the cinnamon sugar, or, if you are feeling a bit adventurous, the li hing mui one (a bright red sweet and sour powder from pickled plums).
Manapua are meat-filled steamed buns. Heavily influenced by the Chinese dish cha siu bao, the local manapua dish has incorporated a bit of Hawaiian flavor as well.
Hawaiian Chili Pepper Water
Hawaiian chili pepper water is less of a food and more of a seasoning. Back in the day, ancient Hawaiians used to combine water, sea salt, and Hawaiian chili peppers to add a little kick to their dishes. Today, that seasoning is known as Hawaiian chili pepper water.
Over the years, many variations of this spicy seasoning have popped. The Hawaiian hot sauce from Kauai Juice Co. — one of the best Kauai restaurants, by the way — has tried to keep things as close to the original version as possible. Then, there’s the popular Maui-based Adoboloco hot sauce brand, which has come up with a dozen variations on this ancient Hawaiian spice.
Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck (Oahu-specific)
Many lists will tell you any North Shore shrimp truck will do. That is not the case. You must go to Giovanni’s. (I promise this is not a sponsored post! I just think it’s THAT much better than it’s competitors.)
My go-to is always the garlic shrimp – and I recommend that for everyone. For those of you who are going to walk up to the shrimp truck and order the extra spicy shrimp to seem extra macho, don’t do it. I have never met a single person who could tolerate the spicy shrimp. But we all know that’ll make you want to order it more. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Haupia in Some Form
Haupia is a coconut-pineapple pudding dessert that you definitely need to try. Ted’s Bakery has some in pie-form for ya, ready to go!
If you’re looking for more of Hawaii’s sweet treats, this Hawaii desserts article is a fantastic read.
I’ve noticed that on the mainland (also known as the continental United States), many ice cream places are trying to pass off their version of the dole whip. But nothing will compare to the original dole whip of the Dole Plantation of Oahu.
Pro Tip: if you have a local friend, have them come with you. They can get a bit of a discount on this delicious treat for ya.
Loco Moco is composed of a scoop of rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and gravy. Don’t knock it until you try it (hopefully at L&L).
This typical luau food is a must-have. If prepared traditionally (which is still sometimes done), the whole pig is actually cooked in a hole in the ground. While it’s quite the extensive process, the result is worth it.
To get the best kalua pig in the islands, be sure to visit one of these fantastic Hawaiian restaurants in Hawaii.
You’re most likely to find huli-huli chicken at a school fundraiser or a random grill on the side of the road. Because the term “huli-huli” was trademarked, you aren’t about to see this teriyaki-infused, constantly-turned, grill-flavored chicken on any menu, so keep your eyes peeled for those alternative options.
Just about everyone else on the entirety of the internet will tell you go to go to Matsumoto’s Shave Ice. But I think that place is a Hawaii tourist trap. The shave ice there is a little too sweet even for my taste – and I have a serious sweet tooth.
Instead I recommend Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice, because they use all-natural fruity flavors and a smooth ice texture. As a matter of fact, Ululani’s is my favorite shave ice spot anywhere in Hawaii! For now, they have locations on Maui and the Big Island.
*Pro Tip: It is shave ice. Not shaved ice. If you are going to go around calling it shaved ice, you better get used to iced cream too. Any place that says shaved ice isn’t making it right.
I just recently came to realize that saimin is a local dish. It’s kind of like a combo between Japanese ramen, Chinese mein, and Filipino pancit. And surprisingly this combo works quite well.
Li Hing Mui
Li Hing Mui is kind of like a sweet, spicy, sour plum powder. You put it on shave ice, malasadas, and fresh or dried fruit. Honestly, you have to try it to understand how good it is.
To get a whole guava, you’ll have to go to either a local farmers market or a Foodland (a local grocery store). Usually, you’ll get to buy some pink guava, but on occasion you may come across some white guava as well.
Mochi With and Without Ice Cream
I found out that many mainlanders think that mochi is mochi ice cream. In other words, the ice cream is a part of the mochi. No, that is not the case. There is mochi without ice cream, and it is bomb. You can easily buy some at Foodland.
If you’re committed to mochi ice cream, Bubbies is the brand to get. They used to have a brick-and-mortar storefront in Hawaii Kai, but they expanded beyond belief, so now you can find boxes of their stuff in frozen sections of many grocery stores (even ones on the mainland!)
That said, I feel like there are two things that determine how fantastic Bubbies mochi ice cream is: the temperature that it’s stored at and how long it’s been in the freezer. When Bubbies mochi ice cream gets too cold, the flavors are dulled and the mochi is just hard. And when its been in the freezer too long, the mochi on the outside of the ice cream gets a weird texture.
To combat this issue, I splurge a little bit and buy Bubbies mochi ice cream from Whole Foods by the each. They store it at the perfect temperature, and, since they buy such small batches, it never tastes old!
Homemade Butter Mochi
You have to have some local connections to get this one, but there is a third kind of mochi that’s absolutely fantastic. Butter mochi. Instead of the sticky mochi texture, butter mochi is almost pound-cake like.
Without a doubt, butter mochi is best if it’s homemade. I’ve tried buying it at local grocery stores or farmers markets, but it’s just not the same cake-y, butter-y flavor.
If you don’t have a friend who makes fantastic butter mochi, head to Kahuku Farms, one of the best restaurants on the North Shore. There, they have lilikoi (passion fruit) butter mochi that’s absolutely fantastic. Just be sure to order some before they sell out!
Lilikoi means passion fruit in Hawaiian. And you can’t leave Hawaii without getting something lilikoi-flavored. Lilikoi shave ice, lilikoi mochi ice cream, lilikoi cheese cake, or if you go to fancy restaurants, sometimes they’ll add lilikoi sauces to their dishes.
Honolulu Cookie Company’s Fruit-Flavored Cookies
Yes, I know, fruit-flavored cookies sound odd. But trust me on this one. Where else are you going to be able to try pineapple, guava, or mango cookies? And these Honolulu Cookie Company cookies also make a great souvenir to take home.
But What If I’m Not Coming to Hawaii Any Time Soon? How Can I Try These Hawaii Food Bucket List at Home?
Want to try some of these foods while you’re at home? I HIGHLY recommend purchasing Maui local, Alana Kysar’s cookbook, Aloha Kitchen. In it, Kysar documents all of the recipes that Hawaii locals love! Written by one Hawaii local, and recommended by another – how much better could this Hawaii cookbook get?
Guess what?! Because you enjoyed this post so much, I decided to make a PART 2 of the Hawaii Food Bucket List!!
Do you have any more items to add to this Hawaii Food Bucket List? Write them below in the comments!
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