The delicious oddities of Hawaiian food culture

The delicious oddities of Hawaiian food culture

Soaking up foreign cultures is one of the most important aspects of travelling and so I never understood how anyone could travel to unknown territories, searching for the same foods and restaurants they have at home when there are otherworldly experiences just waiting to be had.  

Because one of the best ways to soak up culture is through food.

We all understand the language of food. It’s the way we communicate, show affection and try to connect with one another. There is so much to be said about the colours, textures and flavours that we find on our plates; it is such an eye-opening education into civilizations.

And such truth has never been so apparent than in Hawaii.

Hawaiian food incorporates many cultures, representative of the different settlers that first came to its islands. When pineapple and sugarcane plantations started taking over, demand for labour brought in many immigrants from China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Portugal, introducing new foods that greatly shaped Hawaiian culture. And eventually, the melding of cultures and cuisines formed a local food-style purely unique to Hawaii.

But as our host Jinni would say: Hawaiian food is super weird.

This cultural fusion has transformed many familiar foods into peculiar delicacies. Here you’ll find awkwardly fantastic Spam musubi, poi, loco moco, squid, poke and pipikaula. You’ll also find perfected favourites such as mochi balls, seafood, sugarcane and pineapples. And while the textures and styles may seem a bit funky at first, you’re guaranteed to have a food experience unlike any other when you do as the locals do and go Hawaiian.

But where do you go for the best of the best when vacationing in Oahu?

North Shore Food Trucks

Life in Hawaii wouldn’t be the same without the beloved food truck. While roadside dining may not sound appealing to some, the bar is certainly raised by the thriving food truck scene here in the North Shore. Food trucks have a rich history dating back to the 1970s when the Manapua Man (similar to the ice-cream man) would deliver goods such as fried noodles, manapua, hotdogs and burgers throughout the neighbourhood. Food trucks today still serve manapua, a bun filled with Cantonese barbecue pork, but have branched out into other foods and are known best for their twists of the Hawaiian plate lunch.

A food truck in the North Shore of Oahu.

Some trucks roll in and out of their homes each night, but most are permanently parked in fleets all over the island, making them easy to find. On Highway 83, you’ll find food trucks a plenty parked between Waimea Bay Beach Park and Kawela Bay.

My travelling buddy for this trip, Sarah, has quite a few food sensitivities, which made eating out slightly more problematic than anticipated. But we were able to accommodate her every dietary need by breaking for lunch at Aunty’s Lil Green Hut.

This is a health food truck that serves completely organic, gluten-free grub. It is dedicated to the owner’s “Aunties” who nurtured them “from their trees, offering magical remedies, stringing a lei while talking story about Laie’s taro patches, and making you feel like nothing was more important than sharing Aloha under the shade of a mango or ulu tree.” This food truck is quite literally a hidden gem, lost among plants and palm trees in a sea of food trucks parked near Kahuku, providing a relaxing and calming dining experience. It is very much worth the hunt!   

If, on the other hand, you have no food reservations, I suggest immersing yourself fully by trying some of the most popular and raved about food trucks including Dat Cajun Guy, for its Louisiana-style grub and ever-popular oyster po; Pupukea Grill, whispered to have perfected the Hawaiian poke bowl; and the infamous Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, which is renowned for serving the best and freshest shrimp on the island.

Heavenly Island Lifestyle

When I’m on vacation, I rarely eat at the same restaurant twice, wanting to heighten my dining experience by trying as many local joints as possible. But our meals at Heavenly Island Lifestyle were so good, we came back here for brunch nearly every day of our trip.

Completely organic and Sarah-friendly, this is the best place to have a local meal. Heavenly is a natural health food, all-day café and diner in the center of Waikiki and their policy is “local first, organic whenever possible” – without sacrificing taste. Each ingredient and food item is grown right on Hawaiian soil; there’s even a detailed map on the back of the menu to show you exactly where your food comes from.

I went with Heavenly’s organic veggie and beans loco moco and it was the most incredible meal I had in Hawaii, no contest. Loco moco is a traditional Hawaiian meal of fried eggs served on top of a beef patty, nestled in a bed of soy-glazed, 10-grain rice and black beans, which was served alongside green beans, broccoli, carrots and lentils. It was satisfyingly delicious! For dessert, I had the piña colada Hawaiian crown pineapple and coconut gelato which was light, creamy and just as spectacular. To this day, I still dream about this meal, so enamoured with it that I would quickly make the 26-hour trip back solely so I can savour it again.  

Heavenly’s organic veggie and beans loco moco.

Cuckoo Coconuts

Beautifully hidden in the centre of Waikiki (just a hop, skip and a jump away from Heavenly Island Lifestyle), this tiki-style bar is the perfect place to order a few rounds of drinks. Undoubtedly a tourist magnet, you’ll be greeted by the Gods here and treated to live music while viewing countless artworks on display by various local artists.

The drinks, however, are the clear stars of this outdoor bar.

As many know, Hawaii is the island of pineapples, with a booming industry spearheaded by the Pineapple King, James Dole, who started planting pineapples in Oahu in the early 1900s. The Dole plantation is, in fact, still thriving and is worth a visit if you’re a dedicated foodie (or just really into pineapples).

So when Cuckoo Coconuts offered us the tropical candid of sipping from a fresh pineapple on a sunny, Hawaiian day, we simply couldn’t resist.

Without bothering with the food (and it didn’t look like we were missing out), Sarah ordered herself a Loco Coco served in a fresh coconut, while I went for a “real” piña colada served in a fresh pineapple. As someone who has avoided pineapples her entire life, I can honestly say that Hawaii has forever changed my perception of this sweet, succulent fruit. Fresh can’t even begin to describe it as my mouth salivates at the thought of Hawaii’s delicious pineapples. Though my preference is through a cold, buzz-inducing drink, fresh coconuts and pineapples should definitely be sampled often as you will not find better anywhere else.

Germaine’s Luau

The pinnacle of all Hawaiian dining experiences, a luau should be at the top of your to-do list during your stay in Oahu. With so many options, searching to find the best and cheapest luau proved to be somewhat of a challenge. That is until our host and guide, Jinni, proclaimed Germaine’s Luau to be the best on the island.

Luaus are an important part of Hawaiian culture and this theatrical and authentic display of history is a fun (and delicious) way of learning. Originally called ‘Aha’aina Mawaewae, the luau is an important feast traditionally held to celebrate the arrival of a woman’s first child. The meat, such as pig, mullet, shrimp and crab, is cooked in an earth oven known as an ‘imu,’ or spitted over a fire. Sweet potatoes, taro and other vegetables are also cooked in the imu. In preparation of these important feasts, it is traditionally the men who do all of the cooking, using separate imus to cook food for the men and the women, as they dine separately.  

Germaine’s Luau follows all the traditional necessities while providing a rich and spectacular show of Polynesian culture (and breaking all the rules by mixing genders). Acclaimed as America’s Best Luau in “America’s Best 100,” this backyard-style luau overlooks the Makapu’u Point on East Oahu while you feast on your traditional Hawaiian meal on the beach and partake on a journey of Hawaiian culture through exciting skits and dancing.  

This luau is as authentic as it gets as you sample many offerings through buffet-style dining. You’ll have your choice of traditional food such as Kalua pig (roasted pig), poi (taro potato), Lomilomi salmon, haupia (coconut pudding), Pulehu chicken, pineapple coleslaw and more. The Kalua pig, Pulehu chicken and Teriyaki beef were some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted, while the haupia and chocolate cake were exquisite. Needless to say, I was completely stuffed at the end of the evening sticking a little too closely to the “all you can eat” motto.

It was hard to forget Jinni’s claim of weird Hawaiian food while at the luau, however, with so many dishes and food prepared in a way I had never fathomed – it was an incredible feat for me just to get the chicken with long rice onto my fork. But the whole experience was weirdly delicious and such an incredibly fun presentation of culture; we had so much fun enveloping Hawaiian cuisine into our pallets.

And, if you are what you eat, then this vacation turned me into an adventurous, Aloha-inspired being with no shortage of true, Hawaiian culture.

Gina Alward
Travel blogger for and member of the Travel Media Association of Canada. Follow her adventures on twitter (@ginaalward), Facebook (The Here and Wow) and Instagram (@thehereandwow).

Note: This article has been adapted from the Telegraph-Journal  and was originally posted on March 11, 2017. Click here for link.

For more on Hawaiian food, click here.

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