Hawaiian Cuisine – Unique and Misunderstood


President Obama’s recent vacation in Hawaii once again highlighted all things Hawaiian to a public that may not be familiar with everything the islands have to offer. I was watching cable news during his trip, dozing off following an all too successful holiday meal, when I noticed a strange segment about Hawaiian food.

It wasn’t strange necessarily because of the food, which honestly can be a bit odd at times, but because of the reactions of the reporters. I watched as they cast disapproving glances at spam and rice rolls and outright hatred when presented with loco moco.

Granted, I wasn’t fully awake, but I was genuinely surprised at the treatment Hawaiian cuisine received at the hands of these talking heads. It made me wonder how many people felt the same as these self-important blowhards and how those opinions might change if they understood the roots of these culinary oddities.

No where else in the United States exemplifies the concept of a melting pot better than Hawaii. Over the centuries people from all over the world have immigrated here, bringing their unique culinary traditions with them. These traditions intermixed over time and the result is Hawaiian cuisine as we know it today.

Loco Moco – This is not for those with a weak stomach, but does make for an excellent late night meal. In its basic form, loco moco consists of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and brown gravy. The dish was created at a restaurant in Hilo at the request of some teens who didn’t have enough money for a full meal. Like many Hawaiian meals though, variations of this home food favorite probably existed long before it was officially named at the grill. The name itself really doesn’t mean anything and was dubbed loco moco on a lark. Today though it is one of the most popular meals in the islands.

Loco Moco
Loco Moco

Tonkatsu – Originally of Japanese origin, the tonakatsu, which refers only to the pork version, is popular throughout Hawaii. It is decidedly simple, but hearty and filling – the classic definition of a family meal. Katsu is made by frying a scaloppini chicken breast or pork cutlet, similar to a schnitzel, and served with a tonkatsu sauce. Sides almost always found with the katsu are a portion of rice and macaroni salad.

Like many of the classic Hawaiian meals, tonkatsu was introduced to the islands by Japanese immigrants brought in to work on the various plantations.

Spam – Spam is hugely popular in Hawaii and can be found on the menus of most restaurants, at all times of day. Spam was introduced during WWII, when GI s were given the tinned meat as part of their daily rations. Surpluses of the meat made their way into the general populace and a culinary revolution was born.

Today spam is just as popular as it was during the war and not surprisingly Hawaii boasts the largest consumption of Spam per capita in the country. One of the most popular dishes made with this mystery meat is Spam musubi or Spam sushi.

Just like its fishy cousin, the Spam roll is composed of a block of rice with a slice of grilled Spam on top and nori wrapping to hold it together. It actually makes for a great, on the go snack.

These are just a few of the many, unique home-style and street food specialties that make Hawaii one of the most unique culinary destinations in the world.

Have you been to Hawaii? What’s your favorite island staple?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

6 thoughts on “Hawaiian Cuisine – Unique and Misunderstood”

  1. Oof! I could not stomach the loco moco, but I grew up on Spam. I especially enjoyed the spam sushi looking dish; a block of rice attached by seaweed to spam. Those were delicious and cheap little treats!

  2. I think loco moco is disgusting and I can’t deal with spam, though I have tried, so hard. Bleh. can’t do it.

    Still, I’m surprised you overlooked the staple, the cornerstone of Hawaiian chow, the plate lunch! When I think about Hawaiian food — as in local Hawaiian “grinds”, not the stuff you get in fancy places serving Hawaii Regional Cuisine (blowhard, yeah, that’s me) I think, oh, garlic shrimp, rice, mac salad, maybe, since I’m totally blowing any decent dietary rules anyway, a big coffee milk shack on the side…


  3. Aloha Matt,

    Good post and attention on a topic that the national press can never seem to get right…using the word Hawaiian for everything in Hawaii. 9 out of 10 times it’s used wrong. None of the food mentioned here is Hawaiian. It’s stuff folks enjoy eating in Hawaii, but definitely kit Hawaiian. Things like poi, kalua pig, squid luau, etc. would be considered Hawaiian fare.

    And the same goes for the people. Even though I’m born and raised in Hawaii, I’m not Hawaiian…nor should I be referenced that because I live here. Hawaiian is an ethnicity. Therefore doesn’t apply the same as being a Seattleite, Californian, or Georgian.

    Working in tourism marketing, usage of the word Hawaiian is probably the biggest pet peeve of mine. Hope this helps being further clarity to the term.


    1. Thanks Nathan for the comment. I had honestly never considered that before and I absolutely should have. Need to find a term for the unique things only found in Hawaii!

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