Food History of Hawaii

 

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A typical day in Hawaii. The year-round temperate weather makes Hawaii a popular destination. Photo by Author.

I went to Hawaii (Oahu, which is the third-largest of the Hawaiian islands. Oahu is the island where Honolulu is located) for a quick Memorial weekend vacation – it was my first time in Hawaii and I was super excited to sightsee and try new restaurants. I’ve heard many good things about Hawaii from its fans who love the weather, the culture, and the food. I’ve also heard from naysayers who say Hawaii is overpriced and a tourist trap. While Hawai is pretty expensive, I have found from my short time there that it is a great place to visit – it has a very rich culture and history to learn about. There are also many things to do for tourists – one could enjoy a mai tai at the beach, take a hike to Diamond Head Crater, see a luau, walk around Chinatown to see historic buildings (for those into architecture), go to bars (I highly recommend Bar Leather Apron – it is reservations only!), and eat at the many different cafes and restaurants. 

One of the major factors that makes Hawaii such a complex and enriching place is its plantation-era history. I’ll be focusing more on the types of food I got a chance to try during my short time in Oahu, but I will also be discussing the history of Hawaii – its history is crucial to understanding how Hawaii came to be the unique state it is today and how Hawaiian cuisine has become a blend of cuisines – some of its dishes have Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Portuguese origins. 

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A group of Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii.

Statistically speaking, Hawaii has the lowest percentage of Caucasian Americans of any state and the highest percentage of Asian Americans. Its population consists of native Hawaiians, Caucasians, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, and Portuguese. All these groups (besides the natives) have a history going back as far as the plantation era in the 1850s. Per Ronald Takaki’s book “Strangers from A Different Shore”, over 300,000 Asians entered the islands between 1850 and 1920 as cheap labor for the sugar cane plantations. The rapid change in Hawaii’s population can be seen during this important time period. In 1853, Hawaiians and part-Hawaiian represented 97% percent of the population, while Caucasians constituted only 2% and Chinese only 0.5%. 70 years later, Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians made up only 16.3% of the population, Caucasians represented 7.7%, Chinese 9.2 percent, Japanese 42.7%, Portuguese 10.6%, Puerto Ricans 2.2%, Koreans 1.9%, and Filipinos 8.2%. The flux in these statistics shows how rapidly Hawaii changed in less than a century.

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Hawaiian pineapple plantation, around 1915. Photo From Library of Congress.

Due to the many different ethnicities who supplied the labor for the sugar plantation, there were many racial tensions and conflicts instigated by the white lunas (Hawaiian term for overseers of the plantations) in an effort to keep wages low and keep populations in check. However, as different labor forces had to work together day-to-day, amicable working relationships evidently formed among these workers as they toiled under the heat of the sun. These different groups brought with them to Hawaii their traditions, culture, and most importantly, their foods.

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Children of Portuguese immigrant families came to work at the Hawaiian sugar plantations.

In the plantation camps, one could find many different ethnic foods ranging from Chinese char siu (barbecued pork), Korean kimchi  (fermented pickled cabbage), Filipino adobo (meats, usually pork, marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and black peppercorn mixture), Japanese sashimi (raw fish) to sushi. This was because laborers and their families mingled together in the camps and exchanged their different ethnic foods, including Hawaiian kalua pig, Portuguese hot sausage, and sweetbreads. In “Strangers from a Different Shores” by Ronald Takaki, it talks about how “a daughter of a Portuguese laborer noted that her mother would make gifts of her bread and little buns for the children, while the Japanese families gave them sushi, and Hawaiians gave them fish. At school, children would bring their own lunches and share them with one another, while in the fields, their parents would do the same”. This beautifully describes how plantation workers developed strong friendships with each other and how Hawaii’s open culture sprouted with the start of the plantation era. 

When Hawaii became a part of the United States as the 50th state in 1900, contract labor was declared illegal. Thousands of laborers were released from their contracts, and many elected to stay in Hawaii to continue making a living. As such, this helped develop the Hawaiian culture even further as many different laborers and their families of different countries – Korea, Puerto Rico, China, Japan, Portugal, the United States, chose to stay in Hawaii. The blending of all these different groups has helped create an ideal melting pot of ethnicities in Hawaii. 

Anyways, that’s enough history for now – let’s go onto my experience and the type of foods I got the chance to eat! Along the way will be some history about how these dishes ended up in Hawaii. 

Hawaii is surprisingly pricey. It doesn’t get as much publicity as San Francisco or Los Angeles, but Hawaii is actually the most expensive state to live in. Its cost of living is due to a couple of factors – its weather and its location. Its temperate weather means it is subject to a “sunshine tax”, which is a term used for the phenomenon in which salaries are lower than the national average and costs of living are higher than the national average in places where the weather is desirable. California is another example of a state that is subject to a sunshine tax.

Hawaii’s location also makes it costly for imports since the economy isn’t big enough for companies to ship goods to Hawaii directly – instead, all shipping companies send their goods to California and then the goods are shipped from California to Hawaii – that extra step in the logistics adds on to the higher cost. Higher prices are also exacerbated by the Jones Act, a federal law that requires goods be transported between places within the US including the US west coast and Hawaii to be done through US-owned, built, crewed ships. These vessels are more expensive to build and operate than that of foreign ones. Stopping in Hawaii also means additional costs such as pilot and port fees and the market size of Hawaii does not justify the additional stop. Nor are the ports of Hawaii suited for larger ships. The consequence of these factors means Hawaii receives most of its goods from California. 

I stayed in Waikiki for the four days but ventured up north during the day to the Dole Plantation and North Shore and West of Oahu to see my first luau at Paradise Cove. I was very excited for my luau but it was a tourist trap. It was a mediocre show despite many great reviews. 

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Paradise Cove, one of the luaus in Honolulu. Photo by Author.

I was amazed by how many Japanese people there were. It made sense that there would be a high percentage of Japanese people due to the plantation era, but I was not expecting it to be very similar to Japan. Waikiki felt like a mix of Los Angeles and Japan to me. What is also interesting is that there are a high number of Japanese tourists from Japan who come to visit Hawaii every year for restaurants, shopping, sightseeing, and Pearl Harbor. According to the Japanese Times, in 2015, 1.5 million Japanese from Japan visited Hawaii. 

Types of Dishes

The plantation era history meant that Hawaii has a very diverse cuisine from its native dishes to Japanese influenced dishes. Here are a few of the ones I’ve tried: 

Poi

Poi is one dish you may have not heard of before. Poi is a traditional staple food in Hawaiian cuisine that has a gravy-like consistency and is purple. Yes, you heard that right, purple. Its color comes from its primary ingredient, taro, which is a root vegetable that has purple flesh. Traditionally, poi is made by mashing the corm, which is a plant’s stem (usually baked or steamed) on a wooden pounding board with a carved pestle. Water is added during the mashing to achieve the consistency desired. The consistency of the poi can be classified by fingers: “one finger”, “two-finger”, or “three-finger” , which refer to how many fingers are needed to scoop up poi to be eaten. Today, poi is usually made with a food processor for efficiency. 

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A traditional way of making poi – by mashing the taro on a wooden pounding board with a carved basalt pestle. Photo by Meutia Chaerani / Indradi Soemardjan.

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Bowl of Poi with a spoon to show its consistency. Photo on Public Domain.

Poi has a paste-like texture and is a pale purple color, which is derived from the taro corm.  Hawaiians believed the taro plant (or kalo in Hawaiian) was the original ancestor of the natives. It was an important part of daily life in that the spirit of Haloa, the ancestor of the Hawaiians, was present when a bowl of poi was brought out for consumption at family meals. Today, it is still eaten at luaus and offered at Hawaiian restaurants, so it can be easily found. In my opinion, poi has an unusual texture and taste to it. I had it mixed with a salad and thought it was an odd dish.

Pineapples

Pineapples – how can one forget about pineapples? They were once a big source of revenue in Hawaii in the 1900s – this contributed to the creation of many plantations and the need for labor, which led to the recruitment of laborers from many countries throughout the world. Interestingly enough, pineapples are not native to Hawaii. They originally came from Paraguay and were traded during the 15th and 16th century on trade ships. They eventually made its way to Hawaii. While it is not certain when pineapples were first grown in Hawaii, Captain John Kidwell is credited with finding Hawaii’s pineapple industry. He imported and tested different varieties of pineapples in the 1880s.

James Drummond Dole of Boston, also known as Jim Dole, is known as the pioneer of the industry when he arrived in the early 1900s and bought acres of land to experiment with different fruits and vegetables. He discovered that the high mineral content of the red dirt was inhospitable to most crops he grew besides pineapple. He founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901. Today, the company still exists but is now known as the Dole Foods Company. 

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Pineapple plants on the Dole Plantation. Photo by Author.

Saimin

One of my favorites, saimin is a popular noodle soup dish that has Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Chinese, and Filipino origins. It is typically served as a noodle soup dish, but can be served in other ways as locals have developed different variations using the noodles such as fried and dried (broth-less) saimin. Saimin was created during Hawaii plantation era when Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Puerto Rican, and Portuguese plantation workers lived in camps together and worked alongside each other in sugar and pineapple plantations. This led to a mix of culture as the different groups shared their different foods and learned from one another.

Curry saimin on the left from Shige’s Saimin Stand. Photo by Author.

A container of saimin from one of Hawaii’s many McDonalds. Photo by Andy L

 In the 1930s, saimin became popular as vendors began selling bowls of saimin across Hawaii when sugar and pineapple plantations rapidly grew and workers needed an inexpensive and nutritious meal after a long grueling day in the fields. Saimin consists of wheat egg noodles served in a dashi broth (Japanese soup stock of seaweed and dried bonito flakes) garnished with green onions. Additional toppings include nori (dried seaweed), char siu (Chinese barbecue pork), sliced spam (American canned pork shoulder), linguica (smoke-cured Portuguese pork sausage seasoned with garlic and paprika), kamaboko (Japanese fish cake), and wontons (Chinese dumplings). 

The word saimin consists of two Chinese words meaning thin and noodle, so it is believed that the noodles were brought over to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants and that Japanese who were a large percentage of the plantation workers introduced the dashi, to the noodles and saimin as a noodle soup dish was born. The dish changed over time with other ethnic groups adding to different toppings to the dish. Saimin is such a core part of Hawaiian life that it can even be ordered at McDonald’s of Hawaii. 

Loco Moco

A perfect hangover breakfast that anyone would love, loco moco is a dish that consists of white rice, topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and lots of gravy. It has some variations that include ham, spam, Kalua pork, Portuguese sausage, teriyaki beef, and other meats. It is the ultimate Hawaiian comfort food and demonstrates Hawaii’s melting pot culture as the dish is a mix of both Asian and western cuisines. The loco moco was believed to have been created in the late 1940s at the Lincoln Grill restaurants in Hilo, Hawaii by restaurant owners, Richard and Nancy Inouye, who were seeking to create a dish that was cheap and could be quickly prepared and served for a group of teenagers (who called themselves the Lincoln Wreckers) who requested it. The teenagers asked the Inouyes to put some white rice in a bowl, a hamburger patty over it, and gravy to top it off. The Inouye’s charged thirty cents for it at the time. Thirty cents was quite affordable to the teenagers, and so the loco moco became a hit as it was an affordable and filling dish. The fried egg was later added to the dish as a finishing touch and marketed as the perfect breakfast dish. 

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Loco Moco from Koko Head’s Cafe – this loco moco has kimchi tempura. Photo by Author. 

While the origin of the name loco moco is not known, it was believed that Loco (crazy in Spanish) could have been the nickname of one of the teenagers. Today, one can find loco moco dishes throughout Hawaii from diners to high-end Oahu restaurants. It can also be found on menus in Japan (possibly due to Japanese immigrants who migrated back to Japan and brought it back) and along the west coast. 

Spam

Who can forget spam – one food item that is either loved or disliked by many? Spam musubi is quite an interesting dish – it is Japanese in that it incorporates the concept of a rice ball, but its choice of meat is spam, which is an American creation. Hawaii’s obsession with spam began with World War II and has only continued to deepen. Hawaiians eat over 7 million cans of spam a year – the most of any of the 50 states. 

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Spam musubis that include spam, avocado, tampago, and bacon from Musubi Cafe. Photo by Author.

The rise of spam began in World War II when GIs stationed in Hawaii were served the meat due to its long shelf life. Spam was also an ideal item to serve in the army since it did not require any refrigeration and could be eaten directly from the can.  The inventor of spam, Hormel Corporation, provided 15 million cans to Allied troops every week during the war and shipped over 100 million pounds overseas. The troops had a surplus of spam, which made it into the diets of natives throughout the Pacific (besides Hawaii, places like Korea and Guam have added spam into some of their dishes). 

The influx of spam into local diets of Hawaiians led to Hawaii’s obsession with spam and spam musubi, a type of rice ball where a slice of spam is served wrapped with rice and seaweed. Spam is also pan-fried and eaten with eggs or in fried rice or as toppings for other dishes. In fact, spam is such a regular part of the Hawaiian cuisine that it can be ordered at Mcdonalds and Burger Kings. There are also Japanese cafes that serve different types of spam musubis in Hawaii. I went to Musubi Cafe Iyasume, a small Japanese cafe that offers more than dozens of musubis with different fillings such as salmon, tuna, and spam. For spam musubi alone, there are over a dozen of different types from teriyaki-glazed spam to spam and egg to bacon, egg, and spam. You can even get one with avocado. This is definitely unique to Hawaii. And it also shows you can’t get between a Hawaiian and his/her spam musubi. 

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Musubi Cafe. a Japanese cafe in Oahu that offers many Japanese dishes from musubis to bentos to Oden, a dish of boiled eggs, fishcakes, daikon, and other ingredients. Oden can be found in 7-Elevens in Japan. Photo by Author.

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Musubi Cafe’s menu of many spam musubis. Photo by Author.

Poke

 A dish of sashimi (raw) fish that is served with condiments such as soy sauce and salt, along with sides such as rice and seaweed, poke has spread rapidly outside of Hawaii throughout metropolitan cities in the US as a health fad. Sweetfin, a chain of poke restaurants, is one of the many chains that have popped up in the last decade and rapidly expanded. Poke outside of Hawaii will not be the same as those in other states – there are variations as local ingredients have been added as toppings to a poke bowl. For example, poke in California typically has avocado as an add-on.

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Hawaii’s supermarkets, such as Foodland (pictured here), has an entire aisle dedicated to poke. Photo by Author.

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Closer view of the aisle of poke – it ranges from ahi tuna to salmon to octupus poke. Photo by Author.

The current form of poke that uses skinned, deboned, and filleted raw fish topped with salt and seaweed first became popular in the 1970s. Poke originally served as a snack that fishermen would make from some of their catch. Poke seasonings have been influenced by Japanese and Asian cuisines and include toppings such as green onions and sauces such as soy sauce and sesame oil. There is also sea salt, seaweed, furikake (mix of sesame seeds, seaweed, and dried fish flakes), fish eggs, and much more. Poke is such a big part of Hawaii cuisine that supermarkets in Hawaii have a poke aisle that contains dozens of different types of poke (marinated and non-marinated, and different fishes from octopus to shellfish to tuna). Traditional Hawaiian poke usually has cubed sashimi, onions, lnamona (a condiment of roasted salted candlenut), limu (algae, or a type of seaweed), soy sauce, green onions, and sesame oil. 

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Plate of poke with a side of seaweed salad. Photo by dronepicr

Kalua Pork 

Another unique dish is kalua pork. The term Kālua refers to a traditional Hawaiian cooking method that uses an imu, an underground oven. Kālua translates to “cook in an underground oven” and is commonly used for kālua pig, which is served at luaus, a traditional Hawaiian feast accompanied by performances such as dancing and fire throwing. Due to the many hours, it takes for an underground oven to cook, it is typically reserved for large parties. 

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Luau workers pulled the pig from the imu and are bringing to the kitchen to make kalua pork at the Paradise Cove Luau. Photo by Author.

Shave ice

An ideal dessert during the hot tropical days in Hawaii, shave ice (also known as snow cone) in Hawaii consists of a cone densely packed full of powdered ice and topped with flavored syrups, which absorb quickly into the powdered ice’s texture.  Shaved ice exists in many different cultures, but all have variations from one another.

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3 different flavored syrups being poured over shave ice at Matsumoto Shave Ice. Photo by Anthony Quintano. 

Shaved ice itself is believed to have been in existence as early as the 7th century AD in Taiwan. Shave ice (as it is called in Hawaii. Other places call it shaved ice) is believed to have been brought over by Japanese plantation workers. In Japan, shaved ice is called kakigori and it originated in Japan as early as the Heian period (794-1185 AD) when ice was brought down from the mountains and stored in caves known as Himuro, which means ice room in Japanese. It was a luxury reserved only for royalty. 

The modern form of shaved ice was believed to have been created in the 1860s. Shave ice quickly became a part of Hawaiian food culture as the dessert complements the hot tropical weather. During the plantation era, Japanese immigrants opened stores to serve plantation workers in the 1900s – some offered shave ice. In the early days, plantation workers would enjoy them on Sunday, which was the only day off for them. Workers would use their machetes to shave off flakes of ice from large blocks of ice and then flavor the ice with fruit juices.  By the 1950s, many Japanese businesses offered shave ice. 

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The dozens of different flavored syrups for shave ice at Matsumoto Shave Ice. Photo by Anthony Quintano. 

Shave ice in Hawaii is typically served in a conical paper cup and flavored syrup. For a Japanese style shave ice, one can get shave ice with condensed milk drizzled all over and add a scoop of ice cream and azuki (red) bean paste to the bottom of the cup. Shave ice places in Hawaii offer a large assortment of colored syrups. Matsumoto’s, a small shave ice place in North Shore of Honolulu, offers over three dozen flavored syrups ranging from lychee to root beer to cotton candy. Today, there are many shave ice places throughout Hawaii and it can be found in the US occasionally. 

Malasada

Due to Hawaii’s multicultural society, many different foods were easily incorporated into Hawaiian cuisine. Malasadas, a sugar-dusted deep-fried pastry of Portuguese origin became a staple dessert in Hawaii. Similar to a doughnut without a hole, malasadas tend to crisper and chewier. One Portuguese bakery known as Leonard’s Malasadas of Honolulu is known for popularizing the malasada when it opened in 1953.  Malasadas were already in Hawaii since Portuguese plantation workers brought over the decadent pastry when they came to Hawaii at the beginning in the late 1800s.  Leonard’s Bakery helped the malasada become well known to the general public.

Photos of Leonard’s Bakery in Oahu. Photos by author.

Today, Leonard’s is a popular bakery in Hawaii to both locals and tourists. It also offers Hawaiian influenced versions with malasadas with fillings such as custard, dobash (chocolate), haupia (coconut), macadamia nut, and guava. Leonard’s has also popularized other Portuguese pastries and desserts such as sweet bread and meat wraps.

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A box of malasadas purchased from Leonard’s Bakery. Photo by _e.t

Hawaii is also home to many other dishes such haupia (coconut milk-based dessert), char siu manapua (barbeque pork bun), laulau (pork wrapped in taro or luau leaf), and much more. I was only there for 4 days, so I did not get to eat as much as I wanted. I’ll be back again to try other dishes! 

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On the airplane out of Oahu. Photo by Author.

References

Takaki, R. T. (1998). Strangers from a different shore: a history of Asian Americans. New York: Little, Brown.

Times, K. S. N. Y. (2016, August 24). A history of shave ice in Hawaii. Retrieved from https://www.staradvertiser.com/2016/08/23/food/a-history-of-shave-ice-in-hawaii/

SPAM: The Wonder Food. (2018, April 3). Retrieved from https://www.hormelfoods.com/newsroom/company-news/spam-the-wonder-food/

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