Where every plate lunch tells a story

In Hawaii, why eat bread when rice mo’ bettah? / AFR photo by Michele Kayal

“One scoop, two scoop?”

The lady at the lunch wagon is asking about rice, the stubby, sticky staple served from an ice cream scoop with every Hawaii plate lunch.

Rice is a fact of life in Hawaii. Threaten a storm or a dockworkers strike and the first thing to disappear from supermarket shelves is rice, mostly sold in 20-pound bags.

If rice is the base of nearly every Hawaii meal, what goes on top or alongside depends on who’s eating. The 50th state has one of the country’s richest food cultures, born of the mixing and mingling of many different immigrants: Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Korean, even Puerto Rican and old New England missionary stock.

Hawaii has what may be the best sushi outside Japan, as well as Korean specialties such as spicy bibimbap and, if you’re lucky, a cold summer soup made of arrowroot noodles floating in salty-sweet broth of Asian pear. Hot, sugary Portuguese doughnuts called malasadas are Sunday morning fare. Ethnic Hawaiians still enjoy the sticky pounded taro root called poi, soft, salty lomi lomi salmon (fish that’s “massaged” with tomato and onion) and custardy coconut pudding called haupia.

Like its people, who have mixed and married enough to make Hawaii the most diverse state in the nation, the food of the Aloha State has its own story. Most of Hawaii’s immigrants arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries to work sugar cane and pineapple. In the fields, the workers shared their noodles, their adobos and their linguica to create a rich culinary pidgin known simply as “local food.”

Local food means Spam musubi, reminiscent of a giant nigiri, topped with a slice of Spam and tied with seaweed. It means tasty noodle soup called saimin, the hamburger-fried egg-gravy-on-rice mash-up called loco moco. And it means poke, cubed ahi tuna tossed with green onions, sesame oil, rock salt and, if you’re truly going native, inamona, or candlenut.

But the quickest schooling in local food comes from the plate lunch. After the scoops of rice will come macaroni salad or “toss,” meaning green salad, then your pick of anything the island offers: chicken braised in soy sauce, salty Hawaiian kalua pig, Japanese-style grilled mackerel, even chili or beef stew. Those are the foods unique to Hawaii.

– Michele Kayal

Got a Hawaii memory? Favorite food? Tale to tell? Please share it with us below.


11 Responses to Where every plate lunch tells a story

  1. Ron January 9, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    My deeply felt but unproven belief is that the most popular foods I grew up with in Hawaii (spam, li hing mui/cracked seed, cuttlefish, etc.) are those that proved most durable on the long travels to the islands. Even the “cream” that we used in our coffees were cans of evaporated milk. I never knew half-and-half or heavy cream existed as fresh products until I came to the mainland.

    • Profile photo of Bonny Wolf
      Bonny Wolf January 9, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

      I guess that’s why the shaved ice I had in Hawaii used condensed milk. Boy it was good

    • Profile photo of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti January 9, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

      Ron, your hunch is right. Not only Hawaii, but other islands and remote places with tropical climates historically relied on products such as evaporated and condensed milk, as the fresh products would spoil in the days before refrigeration. Same idea with dried foods such as cuttlefish. By the way, my brother-in-law in Hawaiian and introduced me to dried cuttlefish ~ which I love. And of course the li hing salt-coated malasadas. Can’t get those on the mainland!

      • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
        Michele Kayal January 9, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

        What? Li hing malasadas? I have never even heard of this…..Ron? The envelope please….
        Also, re: canned and preserved foods, this is why more SPAM is consumed in Hawaii than in any other US state. During WWII it became a staple….

    • Kim June 19, 2013 at 10:02 pm #

      This is an interesting comment that leaves me wondering what generation you’re from.

      The immigrants brought to Hawaii to work the plantations were, by nature or necessity, farmers. Agriculture in Hawaii was a booming industry in the early 1900s and many people were quite poor. What is called “local food” in this article has its origins in the plantation fields where workers from different parts of the world would trade portions of their lunches with each other. There were dozens of dairies in the islands at one point, and retired plantation workers can recall when milk was transported in glass bottles with milk caps. Indeed every now and then I’ll meet someone that still has one of these antique bottles. The “home garden”, here, is an old school way of life. Old timers to this day are avid gardeners, growing staples like bananas, papaya, Okinawan sweet potato, mango, lychee, green onions, and other local favorites in their backyards (increasingly these yards are being developed). While seasons do vary by crop, the favorable climate would have ensured a constant food supply. Even without refrigeration, fresh eggs have quite a shelf life, and I’ve heard that raw milk doesn’t spoil in the same sense that pasteurized does.

      Fast forward to WWII and beyond, and I can see things like Spam gaining traction, perhaps as much or more for its low cost as its long shelf life. Even in this era, though, agriculture was a major industry. And I would expect refrigeration was already well established. I would guess that the popularity of preserved foods like condensed milk can be traced back to supply and demand economics that perhaps eventually resulted in a cultural shift towards preferring these products. Although today nearly all food in the state is imported, I’m sure this was not the case in the first half of the 20th century.

      For things like cuttlefish and crack seed, I’d guess their popularity has little to do with shelf life and everything to do with Asian cultural influences traced back to plantation days. History shows over and over again that when people travel, they like to bring familiar things – or plants, or foods – with them.

      I guess it depends how pre-refrigeration we’re talking about. I’d think it was the Western cultures that introduced and relied most on canned dairy and other goods pre refrigeration. Cattle were introduced to the Pacific islands by westerners after all. And tropical indigenous cultures have other long established methods of food preservation (e.g. poi for Hawaii) not involving cans or cow milk.

  2. Profile photo of Michele Kayal
    Michele Kayal January 9, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    Bonny, Bonny, Bonny, not SHAVED ice, SHAVE ice! Have I taught you nothing? Ron, so great to hear from a fellow Hawaii person. I lived there for seven years (1998-2005) and it ranks among the great cultural experiences my palate has had. I LOVE local food. At least once a week I would go to Ft. Rugger Market behind Diamond Head and get cold poke, hot rice and beer. My favorite dinner, to this day. To me Hawaii is the story of America in microcosm. Thanks so much for writing. Any childhood recipes you’d like to share? We’re trying to collect authentic recipes for each of the 50 states for our official launch.

  3. MM Pack September 12, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

    For a thoughtful and readable history of Hawaiian foodways, see Rachel Laudan’s The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, published by University of Hawaii. It traces the various waves of immigrants to the islands, the foods they brought with them, and what local traditions developed from the combinations. (There’s a whole chapter on Spam.) The book won the Julia Child/Jane Grigson award from IACP in 2004.

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal September 16, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

      MM, I LOVE that book. It’s my go-to reference for all foods Hawaii. Thanks for reminding me. She has a new book out now, about the history of world cuisine. You might enjoy that as well. Do you live in Hawaii?

  4. Amy March 6, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

    The Hawaiian plate lunch is closer than you think…. Google “Hula Girl Truck”

  5. Beth April 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    I lived on Maui and then briefly Kauai, from 1992-1995. Like the author, it was also one of my most important and formative life experiences as far as food goes. Chicken luau at that little plate lunch place up near Napili– old wooden building with screen doors and old plank floors– can’t remember the name. Opah with sweet potato and coconut milk– cooked in a pot over a fire while camping down at Makena Bay. Almost everything I ever ate there, really. Yum yum yum yum. I miss Hawaii to this day!

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal April 26, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      Beth, I hear you. When people ask me where they should eat when they go to Hawaii I always try to steer them to those little places whose names we can never remember. Those, to me, are where the real food happens. Go back and visit! Bring your hashi.