The culture of Hawaii has long been shaped by the people who landed on its islands, starting with its original inhabitants who produced the rich Hawaiian culture that still exists today. When you layer on the influence of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Portuguese immigrants (just to name a few!), the result is a melting pot that created a food scene like no other.
One thing’s for sure: When you move to Hawaii, you’ll never go hungry. To whip up your appetite, we’ve offered up a list of our favorite unusual tastes you’ll encounter in Hawaii, as well as where to find them.
If you end up eating yourself across the island chain, trust us, you’re doing it right.
#1: Hawaiian Shave Ice
If you weren’t a big fan of snow cones as a child, you might be tempted to pass on Hawaiian shave ice. In our opinion, you’d be missing out. For one, the shaved, not crushed, ice captures the flavors of the syrups you choose, so you’re not just searching for the syrup that sinks to the bottom of the cup.
Additionally, you’ll find a delightful variety of flavors available in Hawaii that range from the expected (grape and blue raspberry) to the local (pineapple and mango) to the exotic (wedding cake and tiger’s blood).
Add a base of macadamia or coconut ice cream to amp up the sweetness or top it with some mocha or azuki beans (Japanese sweet red beans), and you’ll enjoy a taste that’s uniquely and deliciously Hawaii.
- On Oahu, head to the North Shore and check out Matsumoto Shave Ice.
- On Maui and the Big Island, try Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice.
- On Kaui, head to Jojo’s Shave Ice.
The taro plant (kalo in Hawaiian) is sacred to the Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians have grown this tuber for thousands of years, and they’ve used the plant in just about every conceivable way. One of the most unique dishes made from taro is poi, made from the fermented mash of the tuber root itself. In addition to the health benefits fermented foods offer, Poi also delivers a host of vitamins and minerals, which is why many Hawaiians feed it to young children and babies.
Some eat this slightly sour (think: plain yogurt) pudding-like staple with sugar and milk. Traditionalists eat it plain. Still others have found ways to introduce a modern twist to this traditional food:
- Try mochi poi, in which poi is surrounded by Japanese rice dough and deep fried. The effect? “Delicious, thick fried pudding balls.” Get it at Uncle Lani’s Poi Mochi on Oahu.
- Or try poi glaze donuts, glazed with poi-flavored sugar. Get them at the Kamehameha Bakery in Honolulu.
- Finally, you might try it blended into an acai bowl at Aloha Aina Juice on Kauai.
Lilikoi is Hawaiian for passion fruit, and you’ll see this flavor used all over the Hawaiian islands in increasingly creative ways. The fruit is available for much of the year, so you can enjoy this uniquely sweet and tart flavor throughout the seasons. Some of our favorite lilikoi offerings include:
- The Lilikoi Aperol Spritz at the pool bar at Travaasa, Hana on Maui.
- OMG Cheesecake with macadamia nuts, lilikoi and chocolate at Kailua Candy on the Big Island.
- Lilikoi Saison beer, available seasonally at Maui Brew Co. and Kohola Brewery, both on Maui.
#4: Loco Moco
Loco Moco is nearly guaranteed to be the heartiest breakfast you’ll ever eat. Imagine a bed of white rice, topped with either one or possibly two hamburger patties and two fried eggs, then cover the whole thing in thick, rich gravy. If you’re headed out on a hike—or if you’re gearing up for a long island drive—a loco moco will set you up until at least late afternoon.
If you want to truly experience the loco moco, head to Café 100 in Hilo, who claims to have invented the dish. They also have 30+ varieties of the famous Hawaiian dish on their menu.
If you like raw oysters, give opihi a try. They’ve been called Hawaii’s “deadliest seafood”—but not because they kill the consumers of this delicacy. Opihi are mollusks that stick to rocks in tidal areas. As a result, they must be scraped off wet rocks near the shoreline, and many an opihi hunter has been caught unawares by a sudden wave. So if you get the chance to enjoy opihi without crawling along hazardous shoreline, don’t hesitate!
Like oysters, everyone has their own particular way of eating opihi. Some like them as-is. Others like to add a little hot sauce and maybe a little limu (Hawaiian seaweed).
You may see this delicacy in a seafood store, although be ready to pay a pretty penny for local opihi. Because they’re getting harder to find in Hawaii, a few companies are importing a close cousin of the opihi from Ireland. Your best bet is to make a local friend who has a secret opihi spot and is willing to share!
#6: Macaroni Salad
When you move to Hawaii, your macaroni consumption will likely jump dramatically. One of the “musts” of a true plate lunch—and usually accompanied by white rice and a main dish of meat—the classic Hawaiian staple is practically inescapable. Much like a loco moco, your plate lunch and its accompanying macaroni salad will power you through the day. Everyone does theirs a little differently, but most include a lot of mayo and a touch of vinegar that you add to the macaroni just after it’s cooked.
- For a classic take on macaroni salad, hit the Rainbow Drive-In in Oahu.
On the Big Island, try Verna’s Drive-In.
Hawaii’s version of the steamed pork bun (char siu bao) always elicits strong opinions. Anyone who likes their buns has their own preferred source. They also won’t hesitate to tell you which flavor is best, as Hawaii’s options extend to duck, teriyaki chicken and more.
Maui’s Manapua Bakery closed its doors after a few years in business, and rumor has it that Kauai residents are buying theirs at 7-11. However, the manapua business continues to thrive in Honolulu. Check out: Royal Kitchen or Sing Cheong Yuan.
Made out of coconut milk, haupia is often served as a traditional dessert at a luau. Although it has a gelatin-like quality, haupia is firm enough to cut into white squares for easy eating. Haupia is also often featured as a layer within white cakes, and even makes an appearance as the top layer of some Hawaiian wedding cakes.
Because of its coconut taste, many people love to pair haupia with chocolate.
- Try the Haupia Coconut Pie at Leoda’s Pie Shop in Maui.
- Or try a local favorite, the Haupia Cake with Lime Buttercream from Ko Bakery in Kauai.
Let Your Taste for Adventure Guide You
If you move from the Mainland, Hawaii will offer you new experiences nearly every day, especially when it comes to choosing your next meal. If you’re willing to experiment with these unique tastes—and the many others you’ll encounter—you’ll be richly rewarded. Enjoy!
Ready to make Hawaii your new home? We’d be happy to help. Just reach out to us for a quote. We’ll make it easy, safe and affordable for you to kick off your new adventure in the islands.