Beyond Spam: The Basics of Hawaiian Cuisine

Loco moco? Saimin? Spam musubi? Catch the wave on today's hottest trend in food.
Save Collection

Photo By: Leigh Anne Meeks ©2015 all rights reserved

Photo By: Thanks for taking your time to look. Sher Yip

Photo By: Matt Boone ©2008 Matt Boone

East-West Fusion

For most mainlanders, the words "Hawaiian food" evoke little more than pineapples, macadamia nuts and Spam. In truth, Hawaiian cooking an authentic East-West fusion that blends the foods of 19th-century immigrant laborers from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Portugal with those of indigenous Hawaiians, and flavors it all with a heaping helping of midcentury culinary Americana, thanks to the islands' enormous military presence. Only in such a remote crossroads culture could burgers evolve into something to be served atop rice, could Spam be treated as if it were a piece of belly tuna, or could Portuguese sausage and Japanese fishcakes find their way into a bowl of Chinese noodles. Today, the islands' remarkable culinary heritage is finally getting some overdue recognition, with brilliant, young Hawaiian-born chefs such as Ravi Kapur (of Liholiho Yacht Club, in San Francisco) and Chung Chow (of Noreetuh, in New York City) making headlines, and poke shops sprouting up along the West Coast. This guide breaks down some of the glories of this undersung cuisine.

Loco Moco

The quintessential Hawaiian plate lunch loco moco is comprised of a hamburger patty served over two scoops of sticky rice, then drenched in brown gravy and topped with a fried egg; it's cheap, filling and honest fare. Think of it as a Southern meat-and-three plate dropped into the middle of the Pacific.


This is a Japanese-Chinese soup of thick wheat noodles in broth (dashi or chicken), sprinkled with scallions and loaded with toppings such as char siu pork, Spam, shredded omelet, fishcakes or Portuguese linguica sausage. Dedicated saimen shops, though fewer now, were once one of the most-visible emblems of Hawaiian food culture.

Photo by IslandLeigh via iStock

Spam Musubi

This unreasonably delicious union of the Japanese rice ball (musubi) and America's favorite canned luncheon meat (Spam) is a popular fast snack throughout the islands. It's made by frying a slice of Spam in soy sauce, then sandwiching it between blocks of pressed sushi rice seasoned with furikakke (a funky, umami-powered Japanese sesame seasoning). The entire construction is wrapped in a sheet (or band) of nori seaweed.

Photo by Sher Yip via Getty Images


Pronounced "poke-ay," poke is a salad of cubed raw fish — often tuna, but the sky's the limit — typically flavored with soy sauce, sesame, seaweed, chiles and inamona (roasted candlenuts). If ceviche, a close cousin, is all about high-pitched flavors from citrus and herbs, poke heads in the opposite direction, going deep with layers of umami flavor that underscore the savory quality of the fish.


Holeless yeasted doughnuts brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, malasadas are made from a brioche-like dough, and they are both eggier and richer (from milk and cream) than your average doughnut. Though a simple dusting of sugar, cinnamon sugar or li hing (a sweet-tart pickled-plum powder) is traditional, many shops serve malasadas filled like jelly doughnuts; haupia (coconut pudding) is a local favorite.

Photo by Lauren King via iStock

Shave Ice

This is perhaps the lightest and fluffiest of all the world's shaved- or crushed-ice desserts. Traditional shave ice comes from a special machine (invented by the Japanese) designed to rapidly spin large blocks of ice over a blade, yielding a blizzard of superfine ice. This snow-ice is packed into a paper cone, often atop a foundation of adzuki bean paste or ice cream, and finished with a drizzle of sweetened fruit syrup in tropical flavors such as mango, coconut, litchi and passionfruit.

Hawaiian Sweet Rolls

Another Portuguese contribution, Hawaiian sweet rolls are fluffy and squishy like a potato roll, with an alluring sweetness and a hint of citrus flavor. As slider buns, these are tough to beat. They're already widely available under the King's Hawaiian brand.

Photo by fotobymatt via iStock

More from: