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Understanding the Flavors of Hawaiian Cuisine

Understanding the Flavours of Hawaiian Cuisine

Hawaii’s cuisine is a confluence of flavors in part due to their native inhabitants but also to those who have journeyed to their shores to work and live. Their food encompasses dishes based on traditional Hawaiian fare as well as those with Polynesian, European and Asian roots. There has even been the recent development of ‘Hawaii regional cuisine’, an initiative by local chefs to showcase fresh local produce while incorporating the flavors brought to the state from various countries throughout the world.

What is Traditional Hawaiian Food?

Traditional Hawaiian cuisine predominantly features vegetables and fruits grown on the volcanic island including sweet potatoes, yams, taro, coconuts and pineapples. Fresh fish is also prolific as are meats such as pork and chicken.

Over time, an influx of immigrant workers from Asian nations as well as those with Portuguese blood, brought with them a mixture of new flavors and dishes. Mainland American food culture also had an impact serving to further create a unique fusion cuisine.

Today, there are many delicacies that feature on traditional Hawaiian menus. While the list is lengthy, there are a number that stand out and are well-known throughout the island state for their interesting flavor combinations and cooking techniques.

What is Kalua pig and What Does it Taste Like?

Kalua pig has been a part of Hawaii’s history for hundreds of years. It is a very traditional method of roasting a whole pig in an imu. An imu is akin to an underground oven; a pit in the ground that is filled with volcanic rocks heated by fire. Once the rocks are hot, the meat and any accompanying vegetables are wrapped in vegetation - such as banana leaves - and then laid in the umu. They are then covered with wet leaves and earth and the food gently steams and roasts for many hours.

This method of cooking produces a wonderful smoky flavor. The meat also retains a excellent amount of moisture so is very succulent and moreish.

What is Poke Salad and What Does it Taste Like?

At its most basic, poke salad is a raw fish salad accompanied by seasoning and/or marinade. Instead of thinly slicing the fish - as is the case in Japanese sushi - poke feature tiny cubed pieces. Ahi (tuna) is the most commonly used fish in the dish, but with the increasing popularity of poke worldwide (the phenomenon of poke bowls - fish salad atop a bed of steamed rice) other varieties are now being used.

There are many ways to flavor a poke dish. Some examples:

Traditional additions to Poke Salad:

  • Maui onions
  • Limu (algae)
  • Roasted candlenut
  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
  • Green onions

Modern additions to Poke Salad:

  • Seaweed
  • Fish eggs
  • Kimchi
  • Avocado
  • Ponzo sauce
  • Pickled jalapeno

As for taste, the flavor of the fish is very mild so it is the seasonings and marinades that shine on the palate.

What is Poi and What Does it Taste Like?

Poi can be found in households all over Hawaii as it is considered a staple of the cuisine. It is made by boiling, baking or steaming taro root and then pounding it with water to the right consistency. It can be liquid or firm; it all depends on the chef and the taste of their diners. Poi can be eaten fresh or left to ferment over a few days to develop the texture and flavor.

The flavor of poi is somewhat pasty and starchy as taro is a root vegetable. Fresh poi has a subtle sweet taste but if left to ferment, it turns slightly sour. Most Hawaiians eat poi on its own but those new to the dish can add a dollop to a plated dish of kalua pork or other delicacies to become accustomed to the flavor.

What is Saimin and What Does it Taste Like?

Saimin is the ultimate fusion dish with influences from Japan, China, Korea and Portugal. It is a noodle soup featuring a host of different ingredients, all dependent on the chef cooking it and customers’ taste.

It usually contains:

  • Wheat noodles & stock (akin to Japanese ramen & dashi)
  • Char siu (Chinese barbecued pork)
  • Linguica (smoked Portuguese pork sausage)
  • Nori (Japanese seaweed)
  • Green onions

Taste-wise, is it quite similar to a Japanese ramen or perhaps a Chinese wonton soup.

The dish is very popular throughout Hawaii and is served in many establishments from school cafeterias to sporting venues and even McDonalds!

What is Haupia and What Does it Taste Like?

Haupia is a traditional Hawaiian dessert comprised of just a few ingredients producing in a delightful fresh, coconut flavor. Made primarily from coconut milk and ground or powdered arrowroot (or cornstarch), it can be served as a soft pudding or cooked to a consistency where it can be cut into blocks. The amount of arrowroot determines the final textured outcome. It is usually topped with toasted coconut to enhance the central flavor profile.

What is Loco Moco and What Does it Taste like?

The traditional version of this very simple dish has just four components:

  1. Boiled white rice
  2. A hamburger patty
  3. Gravy
  4. Fried egg

The rice is served first then topped by the hamburger, gravy and completed with the fried egg.

There are a number of variations to the traditional version which includes the additions of fish, teriyaki beef, chili, kalua pork, Spam or Portuguese sausage.  It can also be turned into an infamous Hawaiian ‘plate meal’ by adding macaroni salad or noodles.

The flavor comes down to the loco moco ingredients – it might be something like a Japanese bento box or a Chinese style stir-fried dish.

Loco moco is immensely popular throughout Hawaii and can be found in many restaurants, even crossing over to mainland US.

What is Lomi Lomi Salmon and What Does it Taste Like?

Yet another staple of Hawaiian cuisine, Lomi Lomi salmon is a salad made up of diced fresh tomato, raw salted salmon and a mixture of Maui and green onions. Chili is sometimes added for a bit of kick. It has a very fresh flavor and is mostly eaten as a side dish to accompany main meals like kalua pork.

What is Malasada and What Does it Taste Like?

Malasada are Portuguese doughnuts. Made from a yeast-laden dough incorporating flour, sugar, eggs and milk, the dough is shaped into balls, fried and then dipped in sugar.

They differ from American-style doughnuts as they do not contain a hole and are traditionally left unfilled. However, today many Hawaiians do fill them with cream or haupia. Another point of difference is in taste – malasada are made with a higher portion of eggs than other doughnuts so do retain more of an eggy flavor.

All in all, it is plain to see Hawaiian cuisine is a melting pot of different influences, thus flavors. They seem to have taken the best from the visitors to their island state to create food that is at once bold, fresh, wholesome and extremely satisfying.