So, you’re looking for more than plastic leis, pineapple pizza, and kitschy luaus on your trip to Hawaii, right? Many of today’s travelers are looking for ways to experience local culture while supporting local communities authentically and responsibly.
One of the best ways to experience the island’s culture is to eat local food prepared by local people. It’s impossible to pin down Hawaiian culture because Hawaii is a melting pot of native and immigrant cultures. The same goes for Hawaiian food, which can be a mix of native and Polynesian as well as Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Samoan, Portuguese, and more.
Authentic local food defies expectations. It is unique, filling, unfussy, and almost always served with rice. Also, it’s delicious! Many of the best places for authentic food are hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop, spots. Since they aren’t catered to tourists, they may be lacking in ambiance so keep an open mind and an empty stomach on your quest for real local food.
There are many options for real Hawaii food only a short distance from our Big Island bed and breakfast.
No trip to Hawaii is complete without trying poke (pronounced po-kay). Typically eaten for lunch as an appetizer or a main course, the dish consists of cubed raw fish, typically tuna, marinated, and usually served over rice. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, is the quintessential taste of Hawaii. Even if you’ve had poke on the mainland, make a point to try it in Hawaii. Many locals agree the poke you get outside of Hawaii just isn’t real poke.
There are lots of different poke flavors to try, but if you’re looking to keep it traditional, look for “Hawaiian style.” Maui onions, inamona (candlenut), green onions, and sesame oil, with traditional condiments such as Hawaiian sea salt and limu (algae). It’s easy to find good poke almost anywhere in the islands (grocery stores, even gas stations), but for something special, check out Reel Aloha Poke and Fish Co. in Kealakekua. Perfect for grab and go, take it to the beach and enjoy. If you prefer a spot to dine in or not everyone in your party likes raw fish, Umeke’s Fish Market Bar & Grill is located in Kona and has lots of options to keep everybody happy.
Plate lunch is quintessentially Hawaiian standard that consists of two scoops of white rice, macaroni salad and an entree (or two entrees for a mix-plate). There are lots of delicious local dishes to choose from, but a plate lunch with Laulau is about as local as it gets. Laulau is a Polynesian dish with a history that goes back to ancient Hawaii. Fillings such as pork, fish, or chicken are wrapped in taro leaves and steamed. Kaaloa’s Super J’s laulau is straightforward, authentic home-cooked Hawaiian food. Went you walk in the door, it’s like stepping into someone’s home. Literally. Don’t forget to check their dessert offerings as well.
If you put an over-easy egg on top of a hamburger patty, on top of a bed of rice (white or fried), and smother it in brown gravy, you will have the loco moco. Originating in Hilo, the loco moco is a staple of contemporary Hawaiian food and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can substitute the hamburger for Spam, Portuguese sausage, teriyaki, or even fried chicken katsu (cutlet). Hawaiian Style Café has locations in Waimea and Hilo and makes authentic loco moco. If you’re on the Kona side, try the loco moco at Big Island Grill. Bring your appetite because Hawaiian portions are typically generous.
No list of Hawaii foods is complete without Spam musubi. Don’t let the Spam scare you off. This iconic local dish features a slice of fried Spam over a block of sticky white rice, wrapped with dried nori (seaweed) and is unreasonably tasty. You can find it in a variety of places including restaurants, grocery stores, and convenience stores. KTA Superstores or Sack n Save in Kona usually stock them, made daily, or pick one up at restaurant chain L&L Hawaiian Barbeque. Perfectly portable, it makes for an effortless breakfast, lunch, or snack on the go.
Looking to try a variety of local foods? Kanaka Kava, Broke Da Mouth Grindz, and Nephi’s Smokehouse all have lots of other local options to choose from. Other popular favorites to try include kalua pork and cabbage, teriyaki, char siu, smoke meat, kalbi, meat jun, katsu, adobo, and more. Don’t forget the shoyu (soy sauce), furikake (a seasoning mixture of dried fish, sesame seeds, and seaweed), and chili pepper water– local condiments of choice.
So, you want to support local, but maybe branch out from just Hawaiian food? Food Truck Friday in the parking lot of the Kona Target is the perfect way to sample lots of different dishes from small local vendors.
Can’t forget dessert! Hawaii is a haven for unique and satisfying desserts. On your hunt for Hawaii sweets, try regional flavors such as lilikoi (passionfruit), strawberry guava, taro, macadamia nut, haupia (creamy Hawaiian coconut pudding), or ube (purple sweet potato).
Shave ice is a tropical delight and includes shaved ice flavored with syrups and toppings. Sweet and refreshing, it’s the perfect accompaniment to a beach day. For something special, check out Gecko Girlz in Kona. They make all of their syrups in Hawaii using pure cane sugar, no corn syrup. They feature local flavors like Waialua Lilikoi, Molokai Pineapple, or Nuuanu Lychee. Their artisanal flavor combinations include a variety of beloved Hawaii ingredients. Try Li Hing Mui powder, mochi, flavored popping pearls, or sweet azuki beans.
Mochi is a Japanese rice cake delicacy. Glutinous rice is pounded into a paste, stuffed with fillings, and molded into a desired shape. Nobody on the Big Island does mochi like Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo, where the mochi is handmade and made fresh to order. The most popular flavor is strawberry mochi. This treat has an entire fresh strawberry and sweet bean paste inside soft, mildly sweet mochi. This hole-in-the-wall spot usually has a line so put your order in the day before to save time.
These sugar-dusted Portuguese-style doughnuts are always a favorite. You can eat malasadas plain or with sweet cream fillings like custard, chocolate, guava, pineapple, and coconut. Enjoy it as a sweet treat for breakfast, dessert, or an any-time of the day snack. Paradise Bakery is convenient for those staying in Kona. For the truly special confectionary, visit TEX Drive-in in Honoka’a or Punalu’u Bakery in Na’alehu.
This coffee ranks among the best in the world. Kona Coffee beans (cherry) are still picked by hand and milled by farmers whose families have been doing it for generations. The flavor is delicate, yet rich and is distinguishable from machine-harvested coffee. There are hundreds of coffee farms on the Big Island including right here at our Big Island bed and breakfast. We grow 100 percent Kona gourmet coffee so guests can enjoy a true farm-to-mug experience. For next-level coffee creations, check out Heavenly Hawaiian’s Konalani Coffee Bar or HiCo for specialty coffee drinks like their ube latte.
Kava is a ceremonial and medicinal drink made from the roots of the ‘awa plant. Bitter and earthy tasting, kava has physiological and reportedly medicinal effects including relaxation, mental clarity, and a slight numbness of the mouth and tongue. Kanaka Kava Bar, a Hawaiian family-owned business, serves cultural food and drinks sourced from their local farm. They teach patrons about Hawaiian culture by sharing kava’s history and providing guidance on how and when to use it properly.
Hawaiian Rum is a blossoming new industry for the islands. Rum is made from sugarcane and Hawaii was, for part of its history, a hub for growing sugarcane. Recent discoveries have found native Hawaiian heirloom sugarcane that can be traced back to varieties brought by the Polynesians more than 1,000 years ago. A few Hawaiian companies are working to revive these heirloom varieties. Kuleana Rum Works is one of them and grow their own heirloom sugarcane to make their rum. Their farm, distillery, and restaurant bar are all located here on the Big Island. Visit The Rum Shack for tastings, signature cocktails, and local island cuisine.
If you’re looking to sample some Hawaiian beer (and you should!), look no further than Ola Brew Co. Employee and community-owned, the team at Ola Brew is committed to supporting Big Island farmers and growing Hawaii island’s agricultural economy. They purchase local ingredients and showcase them in their specialty brews. With locations in Kona and Hilo, their taps include a dizzying array of options. Try unique local flavors like Lilikoi Lime Milkshake IPA, Pineapple Hard Cider, Hibiscus Lavender Seltzer, and Lemongrass Mint Hard Tea.
On your next visit, get a taste of real Hawaii and the incredible variety the Big Island has to offer. By supporting local food and drinks, you’re supporting the local people who make them.