NO ‘LOCAL’ IS EVER GOING TO AGREE on what best represents the flavors of Hawaii.  “Hawaii is a melting pot of flavors, with a lot of Asian influences,” notes Russell Siu, executive chef and co-owner of 3660 on the Rise restaurant in Honolulu.

Whether you are fine dining on Wakiki, savoring a colorful shave ice on Oahu’s North Shore, attending an authentic luau with kalua pig on the Big Island or eating a plate lunch on Maui, there is no mistaking that myriad cultures have influenced the islands’ culinary flavors. Located on an archipelago in the Central Pacific Ocean, the population of the eight main islands is made up of Caucasians, Hawaiians, Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans, Samoans, Tongans, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodians. Flavors—from salty to sour—are borrowed from each culture giving identity and character to the cuisine that has emerged. To name a few influences, the Chinese can be thanked for the unmistakable umami flavors of soy; Japanese and Filipino influences are seen ubiquitously in rice, while sweet bread can be attributed to the Portuguese.

A Salty Past
The undertones of local Hawaiian food are easily recognizable and are derived from Hawaiian, Polynesian and Asian influences. Strong salty flavors, which can come from shoyu (soy sauce), are especially pronounced in plate lunches—a traditional fast-food dish consisting of two scoops of rice, macaroni salad and some type of meat or fish such as beef stew, chicken adobo, galbi short ribs (Korean-style) or kalua pig (salty Hawaiian pork). The popularity of these plate lunches has extended to the mainland with restaurants such as L & L Hawaiian Barbecue, which has 60 locations—mostly on the West Coast.

“To me, Hawaiian flavors are salt and shoyu,” says Beverly Hashimoto, owner of Kaya’s Store in Hauula, Hawaii. The community store on the North Shore of Oahu made its mark with locals 62 years ago by selling homemade tofu as well as Spam and rice musubis—a local breakfast favorite consisting of Spam on sushi rice tied with seaweed. (Hawaiians consume the most Spam per capita. You can find Spam on the menus at McDonalds as well as in any supermarket where all of the varieties can take up more than 12 feet of aisle space.) Kaya’s still sells musubis all day long and plate lunches such as Furikake mahi mahi, beef teriyaki and garlic shrimp scampi are best sellers.   

“Locals trust how we flavor our food—more on the salty side,” adds Hashimoto who suggest that anyone on the mainland wanting to add Hawaiian flavors to their prepared foods should start with small portions and go easy on the salt. Offer tastes and go with what is more common to a mainlander’s palate, like garlic scampi or teriyaki, she recommends.  

When preparing his Euro-Asian cuisine at 3660 on the Rise, Chef Siu keeps a local point of view with many of his dishes. “I like to blend the flavors that people are used to in Hawaii—like pickled Maui onions, chile pepper water and kalua pig. Siu offers a kalua pig quesadilla, a long-time menu staple. His menu highlights many local flavors in a classical French fashion.

A Healthier Direction
Traditional cuisine may reign supreme with a lot of residents for its salty, rich flavors and abundance of starchy foods (it is not uncommon to see potatoes, rice and pasta served with a plate lunch), but there has been a push to eat healthier.

“People are eating more natural foods and items like grass-fed beef,” notes Siu who offers smaller portions on much of his menu. There are also more farmer’s markets popping up on the Big Island and on Oahu as well as Hawaii’s first Whole Foods, which launched in September. Even cocktails are getting a makeover: Handcrafted drinks with organic ingredients are showing up in trendy restaurant hot spots across the islands. Honey is replacing white sugar while commercial ginger ale is being sidelined by homemade versions that use fresh island ginger. Hukilau Lanai Restaurant in Kauai offers a Ginger Martini with homemade ginger basil syrup. Superfruits açaí and dragon fruit as well as the green algae supplement spirulina are also popping up in drinks.

Home-Grown Flavors
There are many unmistakably Hawaiian ingredients. Kona coffee gets its distinct flavor from the Big Island’s terroir—the volcanic, rocky soil and slight cloud cover that make up the Kona side of the island. A key aspect of Kona coffee’s flavor is the careful handpicking and judging of the beans so that only the best are used. “Picking unripe beans and adding them to the mix will definitely change the flavor outcome of your coffee,” notes Manono Beamer, owner of Ho’Oli Estate Farm, a 20-year-old boutique organic coffee farm in Kona. Beamer notes that the interest inHawaiian Cuisine Kona coffee and Kona coffee-flavored products, such as ice cream and candies, has increased in the past five years; the coffee’s smooth flavor and lack of a bitter aftertaste makes it a top choice for locals and mainlanders. The recent controversy over what is true Kona coffee—which will be labeled 100 percent Kona, as opposed to coffees labeled Kona Blend, which will only consist of about 10 percent Kona—has also increased the demand for pure Kona coffee.  

Coffee is not the only product that benefits from the volcanic slopes of the Big Island. Lehua honey, from the Lehua blossom grown on the native Ohia tree, is a rare honey with a distinct floral and volcanic taste. Although available only three months per year, Häagen-Dazs® has captured its flavor by adding it to its Reserve line of premium ice creams. The company notes that its Hawaiian Lehua Honey and Sweet Cream ice cream are nicely paired with French Sauternes.

The appeal of Lehua honey goes beyond just its exotic flavor: It has a great story as well. Legend has it that when volcano goddess Pele met a handsome warrior named Ohia, she asked him to marry her. However, Ohia had already pledged his love to Lehua. When Pele found out, she was furious and she turned Ohia into a twisted tree. Lehua was heartbroken and the gods took pity on her and decided it was an injustice to have Ohia and Lehua separated. So, they turned Lehua into a flower on the Ohia tree so that the two lovers would be forever joined together.

The second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui is known for its sweet onions. The onions benefit from the volcanic soil of the dormant volcano Haleakala and have a high water content and little sulfur. Eaten raw in Hawaii, they are often part of the luau table, accompanied by a sprinkle of Hawaiian salt. They are also an integral part of making Lomi salmon—a raw and salted dish of fresh tomatoes and diced salmon.  

Another local cult favorite is poke, raw fish doused with seasonings, served cubed. All types of fish can be made into poke, including octopus (tako), snapper and lobster, though tuna is among the most popular, particularly Big-Eyed and Yellow Fin tuna (known as Ahi in Hawaii). Often served at luaus and everyday gatherings, poke is also prevalent in supermarkets and specialty stores with poke bars serving a variety of flavors. Tamashiro Market on Oahu, best known for its fresh fish, offers many varieties of poke—ranging from limu ahi poke (seaweed) and inamona poke (kukui nut) to kimchi-style and Maui onion poke.

Nicole Potenza Denis is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.