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5 Island Food Favorites That Will Make You Feel Like A Local

local woman waikiki beach eating poke bowl


A memorable Hawaii vacation isn’t complete if food isn’t a conversation topic. It has to be, especially when you think about the fact that Hawaii’s cuisine—modern Hawaiian cuisine—is a rich mixture of Asian, Polynesian and continental influences, all leaving their mark on the island at some point in the past and continues to do so to this day.

Food is also a major thread in the fabric of Hawaiian culture. To fully experience the culture is to dive right into the foods that locals love and crave whenever they’re far from home. But we’re not just talking about items that you’ll find in the buffet line at a luau. No, we’re talking about food that locals have on a daily basis and is part of the modern Hawaiian cultural identity that’s a little different from what tourists typically see.

So if you really want to experience local Hawaiian culture while you’re in the islands, here’s our list of five island favorites that should be on your list of “must try.” Some of them may be out of your comfort zone, but hey, YOLO.

steamed manapuaSteamed Manapua

You can thank the Chinese for introducing this little bun to the islands. It’s basically a steamed or baked bun with savory fillings such as pork, vegetables, sweet potato, chicken and many more.

Originally called char siu bao (char siu meaning “pork” and bao meaning “bun” in Cantonese), Hawaiians affectionately called it mea ono pua’a (mea ono meaning sweet or delicious and pua’a meaning pork). Eventually, the Hawaiian word morphed into “manapua” but little else has changed, except for the fillings. In addition to the traditional pork and chicken fillings, new fillings such as curry, sweet beans, lau lau and vegetables have been introduced over the years.

Where to Buy

Manapuas are available at most local bakeries and frankly, you can’t really go wrong as far as where to buy them. However, while locals will have their favorite haunts, almost every local will know of Island Manapua Factory. Any local worth his or her salt will tell you that it’s the best—if not one of the best—when it comes to manapuas. Libby’s Manapua Shop, Chun Wah Kam and Royal Kitchen also come highly recommended.


Malasadas are Portugal’s contribution to Hawaii’s culinary diversity. These deep-fried, sugar-coated doughnuts are certainly a great dessert option, though locals eat them at any time of the day and with or without any accompanying entrees. But these aren’t just your regular, run-of-the-mill doughnuts: While malasadas will have a brown sugary crust just like any regular doughnut, the difference is what lies underneath—a rich, chewy dough that’s delightfully tasty.

Hawaii has also put its own twist in this Portuguese specialty by adding fillings such as poi and haupia, and more modern versions have even added different flavors for the dough itself.

Where to Buy

Just like manapuas, there are bakeries that are perennial favorites among locals. Some of these are established icons of the community—Leonard’s Bakery and Liliha Bakery for example—while others are new upstarts like Pipeline Bakeshop and Creamery. Then there are places that are just super popular that they sell out well before noon (yes, we’re referring to Kamehameha Bakery). If you can’t get to any of these aforementioned bakeries, a quick visit to Zippy’s is as good an option as any.

spam musubiMusubi

Let’s face it: We can’t talk about local Hawaii food culture without talking about musubi, more specifically Spam musubi. This Hawaii favorite consists of a slice of fried spam coated with teriyaki sauce placed on top a bed of rice and nicely kept together with nori, not unlike a sushi roll.

While Spam is the stereotypical ingredient in musubi, it’s not the only one that’s available. Also popular are spam and egg, chicken teriyaki, hotdog, Portuguese sausage and even scrambled eggs.

Where to Buy

Gas stations, 7-Eleven stores and mom-and-pop shops will typically carry musubis along with manapuas, hot dogs and other convenient “grab-n-go” items.

chicken katsu plate lunchPlate Lunch

One can argue that the Hawaiian “plate lunch” is the foundational bedrock of the modern Hawaiian cuisine because it’s basically the default go-to meal for many locals. It’s impossible to explore local food without mentioning plate lunches; it’s THAT quintessential.

A plate lunch is basically composed of two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad and an entrée, usually in the form of meat (though meatless options are of course available).

Because the entrée can literally be anything, you’ll find not only your default Hawaiian entrees such as Kalua pig and lau lau, but also other cultural influences as well, from the ever-popular Chicken Katsu (Japan) to Meat Jun (Korea) and even Pork Adobo (Philippines).

Plate lunches aren’t relegated to just lunch or dinner either. If you’re looking for something for breakfast, then a loco moco—a burger patty topped with a fried egg smothered in brown gravy on a bed of rice—is what you’re looking for. And yes, it won’t be complete without a scoop of macaroni salad.

Where to Buy

You’ll find plate lunches offered nearly everywhere around the islands, from Zippy’s restaurants to your hole-in-the-wall eateries and diners. L&L Drive-Inn and Yummy’s should also be on your short list of options.

poke bowlPoke

When it comes to seafood, Poke is perhaps Hawaii’s most popular contribution to the culinary world. So much so that “poke bowls” have been the rage in a many urban culinary scenes across the country.

The traditional way of preparing poke consists of dicing skinless and boneless raw fish, usually some sort of tuna with Ahi being the most popular choice, then mixing it with Hawaiian sea salt, seaweed and roasted kukui nut (commonly known as candlenut).

Over time, Asian influences introduced soy sauce, onions and sesame oil into the recipe, and you’ll even find tuna being replaced by salmon, shellfish and boiled octopus.

Where to Buy

The best and easiest place to get poke would be Foodland. This grocery chain not only has convenient locations across the state but also boasts a wide selection of poke. Other local favorites include Tamura’s Fine Wine, Maguro Brothers Hawaii and Ono Seafood.

And there you have it. Our five “must try” food favorites that will make you feel like a local. Yes, we know this is a short list and there are other foods that we should have included, but we think this is a great solid start. We’ll expand this list in a future post, but before we do, we’d like to know: What’s your favorite Hawaiian food? Chime in through the comments and let us know!