Hawaii’s ‘local’ food is diversity on a plate

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Today in Honolulu, the discerning diner can eat at lots of upscale places from Nobu to Bill’s Sydney, creation of the Australian chef Bill Granger. But on a recent trip, the only thing I wanted were the flavors that brought me home.

I lived in Hawaii for seven years, learning about the state’s intensely multi-ethnic culture through its comfort food. Honolulu is home to many places that offer Japanese food, Korean food, Chinese food, Hawaiian food, even Portuguese food. But the traditions and flavors distinct to each of these come together in what we simply call “local” food.

Local food means cubed ahi with limu (seaweed) and inamona (candlenut),  called “poke.” It means the egg-topped hamburger on rice slathered in gravy called “loco moco.” And, of course, it means a tall, frosty shave ice when you come off the beach.

I managed to visit many of my old haunts: Ft. Ruger Market for poke, Side Street Inn for fried rice. But just as Nobu has come onto the fancy-pants scene, local food has also seen some new additions. Among my favorites were the porky twist on loco moco at Honolulu’s new Highway Inn restaurant and the oysters being farmed at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu’s windward coast.

I couldn’t bring home a care package. So I offer these photos instead. (All AFR photos by Michele Kayal.)

— Michele Kayal 

Makes 6 servings

Basic Poke

I like to call poke “poor man’s sushi.” Get super-fresh ahi, then pair the dish with hot rice and cold beer. Do not -- repeat, do not -- eat this with a fork. Chopsticks only. This recipe is adapted from "The Food of Paradise" by Rachel Laudan (University of Hawaii Press, 1996).
--Michele Kayal


  • 1 pound raw, sushi-grade tuna
  • ½ cup fresh (not dried) seaweed, preferably the crisp, mild, red-brown variety called ogo*
  • 1 small, red onion, thinly sliced
  • Soy sauce


Cut the fish into ½-inch cubes. Wash the seaweed, and chop it into ½-inch pieces. Mix gently with the fish, being careful not to mash it, and add soy sauce to taste. Serve well chilled.

*Variation: My favorite variation substitutes sesame oil for the soy sauce and scallion for the red onion. Add inamona (ground candlenut) and coarse salt. As with ogo, inamona can be purchased online (but brazil nut will work in a pinch).

Makes 1 serving

Loco Moco

Invented by surfers, loco moco will keep you going all day. The perfect combination of fat, carbs and protein.


  • 2 scoops rice, preferably short- to medium-grain, cooked until slightly sticky
  • 1 four-ounce hamburger patty, cooked in a pan
  • 1 egg, sunny side up or over easy
  • ½ cup brown gravy (jarred is appropriate)
  • Soy sauce (shoyu)
  • Chili pepper water (Hawaii's version of hot sauce)


Cook the rice and keep it warm. Fry the hamburger patty in a small, non-stick pan. Remove and keep warm. Wipe most, but not all the grease from the hamburger pan. Return the pan to medium-high heat, and cook egg to preference. Meanwhile, warm the gravy in a small saucepan or in the microwave.

To assemble: Place 2 scoops of hot rice in a shallow bowl. Top with the hamburger patty. Top with the egg. Slather with gravy. Apply shoyu or chili pepper water or other hot sauce to taste.

Makes 1 serving


Lighter and less fussy than ramen, these noodles make a great snack or late night meal. You can find them all over the islands at places called "drive-inns," fast-food-style joints that serve local fare.


  • 2 cups any broth, but preferably Japanese dashi
  • ¼ pound fresh noodles, such as Chinese egg noodles
  • Toppings of choice could include chopped scallions, sliced fishcake, cubed tofu, bean sprouts, Chinese barbecued pork, shredded daikon (radish), sliced snow pea pods and, what the heck, bacon.


Warm the broth in a saucepan. Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package.

Drain noodles and place them in a deep bowl. Cover with the hot broth.

Add toppings. Eat with a Chinese ceramic spoon and chopsticks. Drink any hard-to-spoon broth straight from the bowl.

Makes 24 squares

Butter Mochi

Call it Hawaii's brownie. This heavy, satisfying dessert is found everywhere from bake sales to lunch wagons and even Honolulu's opera house. This recipe is adapted from "The Food of Paradise" by Rachel Laudan (University of Hawaii Press, 1996).


  • 3 cups mochiko (sweet rice flour)*
  • 2 ½ cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Two 12-ounce cans coconut milk
  • 5 eggs
  • 4 ounces melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat the oven to 350 F. Combine the mochiko, sugar and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the coconut milk, eggs, butter and vanilla, and whisk until incorporated. Gently stir in the dry ingredients until thoroughly combined.

Pour into a 9-by-13-inch inch cake pan. Bake for 1 ½ hours. Let cool completely. Cut into brownie-sized squares and serve.

*Available in Asian markets

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2 Responses to Hawaii’s ‘local’ food is diversity on a plate

  1. Profile photo of Denise Clifton
    Denise Clifton April 26, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    Love this little slideshow. Definitely makes me crave poke. Always amazed at the range of poke options offered at places like Tamashiro’s Market (Oahu) and Ishihara (Kaua’i).

    Mahalo, Michele!

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal April 27, 2014 at 8:53 am #

      Isihara!! I was talking with someone about Kaua’i the other day and trying to remember the name the other day. Thank you. Do you know that Tamura’s (the wine store) also has fresh poke now? I love that about Hawaii — at my local gourmet wine store here in Arlington, Va. they sell cured meats, cheese and foie gras. In Hawaii gourmet shops sell poke! I do miss it.