My nieces are visiting the Big Island in December. They’re asking for advice (I love being Aunty!). Let’s start with food. I’m not a gourmet chef, but I like to eat and that makes me expert enough. Our ethnic melting pot has made a rich stew of wonderful foods available. If you can, go to a farmer’s market or a festival or a Hawaiian diner, where you will find all kine tasty home-cooked dishes. Here are some choices that will help the visitor get a gut feel for Hawaiian foods, in no particular order.
- Hawaiian plate lunch. Check out a blog post I wrote on Hawaiian Diners. It’s a good introduction to eating Hawaiian style; no point in repeating it all here. Good places to get plate lunches are Grandma’s Kitchen and Tex Drive-In, both in Honoka‘a, and the Hawaiian Style Café in Waimea.
- Spam. No way around it; sadly this is the State Food. The easiest way to experience Spam is in musubi (#3), but you’ll find it available as breakfast choices and even on burgers. The Jack-in-the-Box in Hilo has it on the menu as a Spam teriyaki burger. I don’t eat Spam, but I can’t write about Hawaiian food and not mention it.
- Musubi. This is a small block of sticky rice topped with a slab of Spam, or chicken, or small hot dogs cut in half and all wrapped in seaweed to hold it together. A Hawaiian take-off on a Japanese snack called onigiri, it became popular after WWII. We have a form and press to make it at home (but not with Spam!). Get it at Foodland in the hot deli display where you’ll also find huli-huli chicken (see #5) and maybe a katsu chicken (#6) plate lunch. A quick and very cheap grab-n-eat.
- Poke (pronounced poh′ kay) is a Hawaiian dish of raw ahi (yellow fin tuna) or other raw fish plus sesame oil, soy sauce, onions, chili peppers, and other ingredients. There are as many variations as there are people who make it. The best place to get this is at Foodland at the meat department’s counter where they have a jillion kinds. You can buy a quarter pound of the type that intrigues you or order the rice bowl where they put the poke on rice for you. A very nice inexpensive lunch.
- Huli-huli chicken. Huli is the Hawaiian word for turn. So a huli-huli chicken (often shortened to huli chicken) is cooked on a spit. You can get a whole one at Foodland, but be prepared to share. The best place to get huli chicken is at a road-side stand where you can see and smell the operation. The road-siders will offer it as a plate lunch (#1, above). Don’t let the billowing smoke put you off – it’s part of the experience.
- Katsu chicken is Japanese-style deep-fried chicken, dredged with panko crumbs (a style of crustless Japanese bread crumbs). This is a variation of tonkatsu, or deep-fried pork cutlet. The tonkatsu is usually served with cabbage and rice. The katsu chicken is often served in a Hawaiian plate lunch (#1) or as the meat topping for a musubi (#3).
- Malasadas are small Portuguese sweet breads, like a donut without a hole, and dusted with sugar. Tex Drive-In outside Honoka′a makes the best, and they will fill them for you with one of several flavors, and you can watch them make the malasadas.
- Poi. This is the mother of all Hawaiian foods, from taro (or kalo in the Hawaiian language), the staple starch for Polynesian cultures. Poi is made from cooked taro corm pounded to a thick paste consistency, usually a pale purple color. Depending on how much water is added during pounding, poi is “one finger,” “two finger” or “three finger poi,” the number of fingers needed to scoop it up for eating. Poi is always served at luaus. See my post, Experience a luau at least once. Foodland also sells bagged poi, right near the poke. McDonald’s sells a taro pie, which is NOT authentic but might be more palatable to your tastes and might give you bragging rights that you tried it.
- Mochi is a small gummy Japanese rice cake made from pounded short-grain rice, usually sweet and sometimes filled. The pounding creates the soft gel consistency. Watching traditional synchronized mochi pounding at a festival is awe-inspiring. I saw two guys swing mallets from over their heads while another stuck his hand in the mochi between hits to turn it like bread dough between kneading. Luckily, everything was timed perfectly.
- Macadamia nuts are the best nuts in the world and very healthy, at least the plain ones are. Mac nuts are great in cooking and baking, especially mac nuts in cookies, and mac nut encrusted fish. I like them plain, or covered in dark chocolate, milk chocolate or toffee. When I’m feeling extra bad, there’s the mac nut caramel clusters covered in chocolate. Some come flavored with sea salt & cracked pepper, Maui onion, soy & wasabi, Hawaiian BBQ, butter garlic & herbs, even Spam flavored mac nuts. For free samples, tour a mac nut factory or look for them at a farmer’s market.
- Kalua pork. This is the smoky-flavored, tender, moist, fall-off the bone pork that results from the underground steam cooking method of the luau. You will sometimes see this on the menu at a diner as a sandwich, but ask questions! It may be authentic kalua pork, but it may also be pulled pork with barbeque sauce – definitely not the same thing.
- Loco moco is a big scoop of rice with a hamburger on top, all smothered in beef gravy, then crowned with an egg cooked to order. Café 100 in Hilo, where they originated, still makes the cheapest Loco Moco. This is very filling so bring an appetite.
By now you may be wondering if all we eat are raw fish or heavy-carb and meat dishes on the Big Island. Do we have anything else? YES!
Fresh fish. Try ahi (yellow fin tuna, eaten raw in poke #4 above, or rare when grilled), mahi-mahi (no, you can’t order just one mahi if you aren’t that hungry), ono (elsewhere known as wahoo), opah (not to be confused with the Greek exclamation of excitement), and monchong, related to butterfish, and both yummy. I haven’t figured out how to properly cook ono or opah yet (mine always come out tough) so now I only eat those while dining out.
Fresh fruit. We have an abundance of fresh fruit: mango, papaya, bananas (little “apple bananas,” not the big honkers from South America), oranges, grapefruit, starfruit, lilikoi (passion fruit), rambutan, lychee, pineapple, coconut, soursop, durian (avoid the durian – long story), dragon fruit, and avocado. In fact I have lilikoi, oranges, soursop, coconuts, starfruit and avocado growing in my yard! Best place to buy these is at a farmer’s market. The Hilo Farmer’s Market is open every day. Not everything is in season all the time, but there’s plenty to choose from. If you get scurvy on this trip it’s your own fault.
I’ve probably forgotten some foods that should be on this list (oh, yes! Bento boxes), but these suggestions should keep you well fed for one or two weeks. Don’t forget to drink Kona coffee or fresh juices. Try some bubble tea (milk tea with large tapioca balls). And, Dear Nieces, if you get a bit homesick, have authentic malts and burgers at the Kohala Burger and Taco in Kawaihae. Sorry, no bratwurst smothered in sauerkraut. For that I go to Waimea’s Parker School Farmer’s Market on Saturday. (See Sometimes I get homesick.)
More essays for Big Island visitors:
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