Dinner in Honolulu
This dish is the most traditional on the menu, in terms of native Hawaiian cuisine. A whole pig would be wrapped with banana and ti leaves, placed on a bed of hot lava rocks, and cooked in an underground earth oven (imu) for up to twelve hours, at which point it would be so tender that it would fall apart at a touch. While this method of cooking does still happen, it requires quite a bit of preparation and people-power, so it’s rare outside of big celebrations and gatherings. We’ve used a much more manageable technique to basically create a miniature indoor imu so that the pork can roast and steam for hours. At the end of cooking, the pork is tender and meltingly delicious, with the banana leaves imparting a subtle sweetness. (No gluten, no dairy.)
Sauce is as important as any other component of the Hawaiian plate lunch, and this is but one of many possibilities. Equal parts sweet, spicy, and salty, dynamite sauce is incredible on the kalua pig and the lomi lomi salmon. It’s hardly traditional in any historical sense, but it certainly speaks to the Japanese influence on Hawaiian plate lunches. While it’s impossible to ascertain the origins of the sauce, it is most certainly a relatively recent creation, and is often used in Westernized sushi across the US. We’ve prepared ours with Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise and lumpfish roe for a fantastic dose of umami! (Contains eggs, fish; no gluten, no dairy.)
Uncle Jourdan’s Spam Fried Rice
Spam. It throws most people for a bit of a loop when considering the food culture of this fertile, lush, abundant place. But for an extremely remote group of tropical islands, canned meat makes an immense load of sense. Today, there is quite a bit of cattle ranching in Hawaii, to say nothing of seafood and other protein, but a legacy of food preservation is characteristic of the cooking. As Rachel Laudan writes in her wonderful history and recipe book The Food of Paradise, “To take on Spam is to pick at all the ethnic and economic seams of Hawai’i.” Spam is flavorful and inexpensive, and recipes abound for it in Hawaiian cooking. This recipe, from Forrest’s Uncle Jourdan, is a classic local combination. Fried rice was the contribution of Chinese immigrants who came to Hawai’i in the late 19th century to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations. A plate lunch would usually have plain white rice, but we couldn’t prepare a Hawaiian meal without Spam! Locals and native Hawaiians alike are proud to consume about four cans per year for every person in the state (Uncle Jourdan’s love of spam is unabashed and well known; he receives at least two cases a year between Christmas and his birthday). It is a rare food component that is not specific to any ethnic group, and therefore frequently referenced by politicians to indicate their local roots without alienating any ethnic groups. (Contains soy, gluten; no dairy.)
Mac salad is a critical component of the plate lunch. It’s pretty straightforward, but we’ve used best-quality mayonnaise, pickle brine, and Hawaiian salt to really make it sing. The origins of mac salad likely lie in some clever adaptations made by mostly Asian cooks at the plantations of the 19th and 20th centuries - the mostly European plantation owners asked for potato salad, but potatoes weren’t grown in any quantity on the islands, and elbow macaroni was an easy substitute. While mac salad might seem as unlikely a traditional Hawaiian food as Spam, it is beloved. Zippy’s - a famous chain of diners in and around Honolulu - sells almost 50,000 pounds of it each year. (Contains eggs, gluten; vegetarian.)
If you ordered our Dinner in Tokyo, you’ll remember that namasu is a classic Japanese preparation of lightly pickled carrot and daikon radish. Brought to Hawai’i by plantation workers in the late 19th century and another component of the plate lunch with undeniable Japanese influence, this version also has cucumber, and all together, this makes for a light and crunchy addition to the plate lunch. (Vegan, no gluten.)
Lomi Lomi Salmon
This savory and light salmon dish is a staple side at every lu’au and gathering. First, fresh salmon is cured in salt to become what is known in Hawai’i and the northwestern US as salt salmon. Though Hawai’i has a shortage of neither fish nor salt, salt salmon is actually shipped to Hawai’i from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Salted meat and fish were introduced to the islands by the whaling vessels of the mid-1800s, and much like Spam (at least in this one way!), the preserved proteins were adopted quickly across Hawai’i. Here we’ve cured wild-caught Sockeye salmon with Alaea salt, Hawaiian red sea salt that gets its color from iron rich volcanic clay. The salt salmon is mixed with chopped tomatoes, scallions, sweet onions and Korean gochugaru chile powder for a hint of spice. (Contains fish; no gluten, no dairy.)
Guava & Passion Fruit Ice Cakes
These frozen fruit cups are a nostalgic favorite of people from Hawai’i. They’re a light and sweet treat, somewhere between ice cream and a popsicle. In Hawai’i, they’re often frozen in paper cups that you can peel away from the frozen dessert. We’ve made ours with house-made guava and passion fruit syrups. Both guava and passion fruit originate in South America; guava was brought to Hawai’i by the British in the 1880s, while yellow passion fruit (liliko’i) made its way over from Australia in the 1920s. (Contains dairy; vegetarian, no gluten.)
Invented at the Bay Area tiki outpost Trader Vic’s in 1944 by Victor J. Bergeron, the Mai Tai was so wildly popular it fueled the Tiki craze of the ‘40s & ‘50s (and allegedly caused a global rum shortage). While not native to Hawai’i, the drink became synonymous with the islands after Bergeron was hired to oversee the cocktail menu at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. To make his original recipe more tourist friendly, he sweetened it with pineapple juice to create the Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai, the iteration of the cocktail most are familiar with today. While we do love a good pineapple cocktail, we’re partial to the original version of this classic. You can find an adaptation of the original recipe in our featured recipes (the original is nearly impossible to recreate due to the fact that it calls for the now very rare, 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum, which retails for upwards of $50,000 a bottle).
Hawai’i is the rainbow capital of the world. Rainbows are so prevalent that there are more than twenty words to describe them in native Hawaiian. Rather than being overlooked as an everyday occurrence, though, rainbows hold a special place in native Hawaiian culture and legend. They are the bridge between the worlds of gods and humans - a pathway from Earth to Heaven. Though rainbows themselves aren’t rare (even here in Michigan), it is a rare person who doesn’t pause to marvel at the sight of one. The factors that contribute to the ubiquity of rainbows in Hawai’i are the same ones that have defined much of Hawaiian history: the remoteness of the island chain, the high mountains and deep valleys, the pristine air, and the patterns of trade winds. The trade winds are what brought the first Polynesian voyagers to settle Hawai’i over 2000 years ago. Those first settlers remained isolated from the rest of the world for over 500 years, until 1778, when European explorers landed and began a long period of immigration, development, and suppression of native language and identity. Now though, native Hawaiian culture and language is flourishing and defended fiercely by new generations of kanaka maoli (native Hawaiians). Honolulu is the capital city of Hawai’i, and its location on the southeast coast of the island of O’ahu puts it in the rain shadow of the Koolau Mountains, which means that the beaches of Waikiki remain mostly hot and dry (and rainbows are a little less frequent). A day trip to the North Shore of O’ahu might put you on the path to a rainbow, though, and maybe some surfing!
While we generally think of Hawai’i as a lush and fertile tropical paradise, with mangoes and pineapples galore, in fact, the Hawai’i that those first settlers found was fairly devoid of plants and animals. The remoteness of the archipelago meant very few species managed to cross that vast expanse of ocean. The Polynesian settlers brought food plants and animals with them, including taro and sweet potato, chickens and pigs; these, along with fresh and saltwater fish, form the foundation of the traditional Hawaiian diet. There were three waves of immigration that largely define the cultural diversity of Hawaii today: the first Polynesian settlers, the Europeans and Americans during the early and mid-nineteenth century, and the immigrant laborers who arrived to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations toward the end of the nineteenth century. These laborers arrived from China, Japan, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Portugal. Every one of these groups of immigrants brought food, seeds, techniques, and spices with them - very little food is actually native to Hawai’i.
Today, there is a distinction between “Hawaiian” (i.e., having native Hawaiian ancestry) and “local” (i.e., having lived on the islands for a long time - often many generations) cultures; the food cultures are different as well, though both are very visible in restaurants, diners, and homes throughout Honolulu. Native Hawaiian food is pounded taro root (poi), sweet potato, kalua pig, poke, and dried fish; local Hawaiian food is an East-West-Pacific blend that includes rice, macaroni salad, Spam (yes, Spam!), Portuguese pastries and breads, soy sauce, and chicken katsu. The Hawaiian Creole language - based in standard English, but incorporating influences from Hawaiian, Portuguese, Spanish, Cantonese, Japanese, and Okinawan - was born on the sugar and pineapple plantations as a means of communication between many different cultures. Much like that language (which is still spoken, to some degree, by most local Hawaiians), local food was initially the creation of plantation laborers, and popularized by home cooks and entrepreneurs preparing food at the omnipresent Hawaiian lunch wagons and diners. Today, local food is everywhere you look, especially in big cities like Honolulu, and along Honolulu’s world-famous Waikiki beach. Among the most popular items that make up local food culture is the famed Hawaiian plate lunch - two scoops of white rice and macaroni salad, alongside one of a multitude of fried, grilled, or roasted meats, all doused with a delicious sauce or gravy. The meal we’ve prepared for you today is an approximation of the plate lunch - we wanted to include some other local foods (and some vegetables!), so your “plate” has a few more components than the typical plate lunch.
Many Hawaiian words have made the leap into popular vernacular - mahalo (thank you), ohana (family), and of course, aloha, which often translates to “hello” or “goodbye”, but in fact means so much more. The meaning and encouragement of aloha has been codified in Hawai’i’s 1986 Aloha Spirit Law, which reads, “Aloha means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth and caring with no obligation in return. Aloha is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. Aloha means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen, and to know the unknowable.” We encourage you to embrace the aloha spirit as you enjoy this food, and then carry it out into the world with you!
Featured Recipe: Mac Salad
Adapted from Aloha Kitchen by Alana Kysar
8 oz dry elbow macaroni
2 g Hawaiian salt or Kosher salt (about ½ tsp)
65 g sweet onion, grated (about half a small onion)
350 g Kewpie or Hellman’s mayonnaise (about 1.5 cups)
Divided into ⅔ (235 g) and ⅓ (115 g) (about 1 cup & ½ cup)
25 g sweet pickle juice (2 tbsp)
90 g sweet pickle relish (3 tbsp)
5 g ground black pepper (about 2 tsp)
60 g carrot, peeled & grated (about 1 medium carrot)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil
Cook the Macaroni according to the instructions on the package until very tender, not al dente
Drain and transfer to a large bowl
Let cool slightly for 10 minutes then add the grated onion, carrots, ⅔ of the mayonnaise, pickle juice & relish, salt and pepper and toss until well coated
It may seem very Mayonnaise-y at first, but the pasta will soak up some of the mayo as it sits.
Taste and season if needed with additional salt and pepper, transfer the bowl to the fridge and chill (at least an hour ideal but you can serve as soon as it’s slightly cold)
If the mac salad has been chilling for a few hours, check consistency. If it has begun to dry out, add remaining ⅓ mayo.
Featured Recipe: Mai Tai
Makes 1 cocktail
2 oz aged, dark rum
½ oz orange curaçao
1 oz fresh lime juice
½ oz orgeat syrup
¼ oz simple syrup
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass
Garnish with mint, lime or a wedge of pineapple
Recipes Inspired By:
Aloha Kitchen by Alana Kysar
My uncle Jourdan, who was born and raised on the island of Moloka‘i, the fifth largest in Hawai’i
A deep dive into the science of rainbows in Hawaii, with some amazing photographs.
If you’re a Spam fan, consider making a trip to Honolulu for Spam Jam, the largest celebration of Spam in the world.
The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage by Rachel Laudan.
Arnold Hiura’s beautiful, exhaustive, and authoritative Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands.
The full text of the Aloha Spirit Law.
The history of the Mai Tai
If you were planning a trip to Hawai’i in the near future, it may be worth holding off, at least for now. A surge in post-Covid tourism coupled with drought conditions is straining infrastructure on the islands and locals are pleading with visitors not to come