The New Gastronome

The Mixed Plate

Hawaii’s Diversity through Food 

In Hawaii, we take food very seriously – yes, because we love to eat it and love to share it with others, but mostly because it forms and preserves our identity in a paradise filled with cultural diversity. Looking back, my roots in Hawaii have a lot more to do with my current day food obsession than I realized.


Growing up in a Japanese-Filipino-American household, I never questioned the ethnic cornucopia of foods presented to me at a casual backyard gathering on any given Sunday. The set up was always the same – a long line of tables stacked up next to one another, draped in table cloths varying in both floral pattern and color, ready for food to be set atop. One by one, every guest showed up with a foil pan filled with ono grinds (Hawaiian Pidgin slang for “delicious food”). Rectangle compartment plates, napkins and eating utensils always placed at one end, then came the starch (white ricefried rice, chow mein, pansit); next were salads (oriental chicken salad, potato mac salad); followed by side dishes (lumpia, chicken long rice, sweet bread); and main dishes (teriyaki chicken, kalua pork, kalbi, lau lau, beef stew). Don’t worry, a whole separate section was dedicated to pupus or appetizers (poke, lumpia, sashimi, spam musubi, poi) and desserts (haupia pie, butter mochi, malasadas, guava chiffon cake, halo-halo).


Local Style Buffet with classic rectangle compartment plates made of paper – Photograph by Matty Leong


Inevitably, my stomach growls while I recall such a heavenly spread. While it sounds like home to me, surely it is a culinary Babel to anyone who grew up outside of the islands. To decipher Hawaii’s Local Food, we have to peruse the history books and understand a long timeline of settlement and immigration to the islands. According to food historian Rachel Laurel, the Local Food in Hawaii is a mixture of four cuisines introduced at distinct periods but now existing together, and quite literally, comprising Hawaii’s melting pot.


Food Favourites at a Local Style Buffet – Buffet Photograph by Matty Leong


First are the native Hawaiian people, who settled in the third century A.D. and developed a gastronomic culture using only the plants and animals they brought with them from the South Pacific and anything that could be found on the island (taro, kuikui nut, breadfruit, seaweed, fish, pigs, etc.). After extended isolation, European voyagers made the first contact with the people of Hawaii in the late eighteenth century on a voyage led by Captain James Cook. A succession of significant historical exchanges between Hawaii and Western governments followed, which led the islands to become part of the world trade system and the breakdown of traditional Hawaiian food taboos. 


Local Food in Hawaii blurs cultural lines to the point where you’re not sure what you’re eating or where it came from, all you know is that it tastes incredible, and you can’t find it anywhere else.


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At the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of Hawaii’s land had been transferred over to Westerners. The search for economically viable products and the signing of the Reciprocity Treaty between the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United States in 1876, allowed the sale of sugar (and later pineapple) to the United States. Due to a precipitous decline in the native Hawaiian population, the planters looked elsewhere for labor, leading to the long migration of Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino, and Korean workers in the late 1800s. Each diaspora held on tightly to their gastronomic traditions and demanded specific ingredients to make the food they knew far from home. The plantation workers made their dishes improvising with what was provisioned, both imported ingredients and made in the islands. (Because of this dynamic, the term “Local Food” in Hawaii refers to dishes born in the island using a combination of imported and domestic ingredients, opposed to the modern definition of local food indicating the proximity of ingredients’ origin.)



From these gastronomic traditions, a fourth and most prominent influence comes from the East-West-Pacific cuisine, which took shape in the early 1900s, known in the islands as Local Food. Local Food was created by the housewives and lunch wagon cooks, mom-and-pop grocery stores, fishermen, vegetable peddlers, and entrepreneurs of dozens of small food businesses run by first-generation settlers. As far ends of the earth exchanged their food from one tin lunch box to another, under the beating sun in the sugar cane fields, cultural lines began to blend. 



Local Food in Hawaii blurs cultural lines to the point where you’re not sure what you’re eating or where it came from, all you know is that it tastes incredible, and you can’t find it anywhere else. The amalgamation of different food on our tables may seem overwhelming and impossible to work out to some, but to me, it is a table set with a rich and personal history. Every dish is more than meets the eye (or tongue for that matter), containing a narrative far more complex than the mix of flavors themselves. 



Here’s a look at a few iconic dishes that illustrate the complex picture that is, Local Food in Hawaii. 


Spam Musubi | Japanese 

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, thousands of citizens of Japanese descent were placed in internment camps for the remainder of World War II. SPAM was serviceable during wartime rationing – fatty, salty, and over-processed, and yet somehow it holds a special place in the hearts of many locals. The iconic blue rectangle can of canned pink meat was omnipresent and cheap during World War II-era Hawaii, while the musubi (rice ball often wrapped in nori) was brought to Hawaii by the Japanese plantation workers. SPAM was abundant, and white rice and nori (dried seaweed) were pantry stables of a Japanese household. Resourceful as they were, the Japanese decided to create a musubi by placing slices of salty, crispy fried SPAM between two blocks of steamy, salted rice and wrapping it with crunchy strips of nori. Indeed, a combination of culture, history, and resourcefulness coming together in Hawaii’s most portable snack. 


Spam Musubi 


Sweet Bread | Portuguese 

The first wave of Portuguese immigrant plantation workers to arrive in Hawaii hailed from the Azores and Madeira, a set of rocky islands off the coast of Portugal. In the 1920s, a nascent dairy industry took root in the islands, and the Portuguese became paniolo (cowboys), proving their expertise in managing the dairy sector as it was a prime industry in their motherland. Unique to the Portuguese immigrants, their labor contracts allowed them to relocate their entire families. As a result, many immigrants traveled intending to place roots here in the islands, bringing their many culinary customs with them, most notably, pão doce or sweet bread (more commonly known as Hawaiian Sweet Bread due to mass manufacturing). Because sweet bread requires expensive commodities relative to the times, like milk, eggs, and sugar, it was only eaten on special occasions like Christmas, Easter, and Lent. These soft, fluffy, light, and as the name implies, slightly sweet pillows of dough are universally loved throughout the islands. It sounds just like a regular loaf of bread…except for double the eggs and the sugar. 


Saimin | Chinese

Dating back to the sugar- and pineapple plantations of Hawaii, neighborhood saimin stands popped up left and right, and immigrant workers cooked up a savory soup using egg noodles and whatever else they had on hand. A comfort food staple in Hawaii, the word saimin is a contraction of the Chinese words “sai,” meaning “thin” and “mein,” meaning “noodle.” While every Asian culture has its signature noodle soup, saimin is entirely unique to Hawaii and nearly impossible to find in Asia. Chewy egg noodles swim in a steamy bath of fish, shrimp, or chicken broth, topped with thin shreds of fluffy yellow scrambled eggs, bright green onions, slices of neon pink kamaboko (fish cake), soft pink strips of previously spotlighted SPAM, and thin slices of deep red char siu (Chinese roast pork). Saimin stands were, and in many cases still are, neighborhood institutions: straightforward, no-nonsense, family-style food to be eaten with wooden chopsticks in one hand and a ceramic Chinese soup spoon in the other. 


Sam Sato’s Saimin and Teriyaki Burgers


Adobo | Filipino

Settled by Malays, trading for generations with China, ruled by the Spanish for over 200 years and by the Americans for over half a century, Filipino food has a complex creole history of its own. Between 1910 and 1946, over 125,000 Filipinos came to Hawaii to work on the plantations as the last group of immigrants to the islands fulfilling the labor shortage due to an immigration act excluding labor from China and Japan. Oddly enough, despite its complex creole nature, Filipino food in Hawaii, compared to Filipino food in the South Pacific, remains relatively unchanged. Take, for example, adobo, often considered the national dish of the Philippines and known to every Hawaii resident who knows what’s right for their soul. While the name may be Spanish in origin, the fare itself is purely Filipino. Adobo is a Filipino classic created by stewing raw ingredients (chicken, pork, or seafood) in a marinade mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, and spices (garlic, pepper, and bay leaf). Saucy or dry, tangy or sweet, adobo boils down into an unctuous, multi-layered meaty sauce to be served on a bed of steamy hot, sticky white rice — final bites to be mopped up by hand. 


Lomi Lomi Salmon | Hawaiian 

No lū’au (Hawaiian feast) plate is complete without a compartment full of chilled lomi lomi salmon — cubes of salted salmon, diced tomatoes, onions, and scallions. But the waters of Hawaii are not teeming with salmon, nor are the fields bountiful with tomatoes or onions. So, how did this dish come to be a local staple? The answer lies in the export records of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), whose regional headquarters was in the Pacific Northwest of the United States in the mid-1800s. HBC opened an office in Honolulu in 1829 and focused on marketing its home region’s primary resources, including salmon. HBC bought salmon from the Indigenous Peoples and stored it in barrels, and it was HBC’s workers (some of them Hawaiian) who would preserve the salmon in salt for the return trips to the islands. The choice parts of the fish were the parts that were easy to lomi lomi (massage), including the belly and back, while the tail, difficult to lomi lomi was used in other dishes. 


Lomi Kampachi


Meat Jun| Korean

Highlighting the apparent local dish topped with kimchee and calling it Local Korean Food would be as stale as calling pineapple pizza a local Hawaii creation (hint hint, it’s not.) Instead, we pop open a fully packed Korean plate lunch — two scoops rice, macaroni salad, pickled vegetable sides, and unique to Hawaii, we find a staple protein called meat jun. Commonly known as beef jun outside of Hawaii, the name is derived from the Korean dish gojijun meaning “meat fritter.” Traditionally meat jun is found in the fried dishes section of a local cookbook. The Hawaii version is made of thin slices of beef marinated soy sauce, sesame and garlic, coated in a light dusting of flour, dipped in an eggy batter and pan-fried. Those who consider themselves meat jun connoisseurs will swear it’s the marinade that sets one eggy slice of meat fritter apart from its Korean mainland counterpart.  



I realize how lucky I was to experience such foods and learn other cultures (whether I was aware of it or not) from such a young age. Local Food in Hawaii is two things: First, it is a record of courage, ingenuity, and harmony of my ancestors who settled in a strange place far from home. Second, As Lauden reflects, “Local Food serves an important, indeed essential, basis that glues the diverse peoples of Hawaii together…recognizing this use of food as a common language drives home the point that food sustains more than the body, that it also sustains a culture.” 



Photos By Carly Dela Cruz

About the author

Carly Dela Cruz

Carly is an alumni of the Master in Food Culture, Communication & Marketing program. She was born and raised in Hawai'i, USA where food, culture, and diversity are one and the same. As a business and communications professional, her mission in life is to enable responsible cultural exchange through curating authentic hospitality and personal gastronomic experiences for travelers. A perpetually inquisitive eater and passionate storyteller, she also curates her blog, Cozy, to inspire readers to be culturally curious and connect with others through food.