When you think of Hawai’i dishes, a few things might immediately spring to mind: tropical fruit, abundant seafood, and luau feasts of roast pork and poi.
Hawai’i food culture is a true melting pot that mashes up elements from the different ethnic groups that settled the Islands and their respective culinary traditions, including Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Polynesian and American. That means a meal may contain elements from any or all these cultures, from Native Hawaiian poke as an appetizer to a Portuguese-style donut for dessert.
Today, local chefs are embracing indigenous produce and traditional preparations with passion and flair. And there’s no better (or tastier) way to immerse yourself into local culture than by sampling some of the archipelago’s signature dishes.
The evolving food scene in Hawai’i isn’t limited to just one locale; to experience the breadth of it all, you’ll want to hop between the state’s many different islands. Taking a bite out of America’s 50th state is a breeze when you’re traveling by sea with Norwegian Cruise Line. Their unique Hawai’i itinerary allows you to explore four islands with two overnights, giving you plenty of time to try these iconic bites at each port of call. Here’s everything you need to eat when you’re in Hawai’i.
For Poke on Oahu
Long before they encountered Westerners, Native Hawaiians ate i‘a maka (raw fish), cut crosswise in pieces (that’s what the word “poke” means). They added sea salt to preserve the dish, crunchy seaweed for texture and brine, and buttery kukui-nut hearts. Japanese immigrants started coming to Hawai’i in 1868 to work the sugar plantations, and they brought with them soy sauce, which made its way into poke (pushing out traditional sea salt).
Poke may be the latest buzzy food trend on the mainland, but in Hawai’i, the dish is ubiquitous — grocery stores carry as many as four dozen varieties. So waste no time once you embark in Honolulu and head to Ahi Assassins, a nondescript, takeout-only storefront on the second-floor of a strip mall in Oahu’s Moiliili. (It’s also tough to locate: Look for the fisherman’s flags.) Making some of the islands’ best poke, Ahi Assasins is run by Joshua Schade, a third-generation fisherman from the island’s windward side. Flavors range from soy garlic with crisp white onion, Chinese-inspired pake with ginger and scallions or the spicy “lunatic” spiked with sriracha — all of it buttery and bracingly fresh.
Ahi Assassins, 2570 S. Beretania St., Honolulu; (808) 439-4045
For Shave Ice in Kauai
Indulge your sweet tooth with the Islands’ most Instagram-friendly treat: shave ice. A block of ice is shaved into a cone or a bowl, and then flavored with syrups that are absorbed by the ice. It came to Hawai’i in the early 1900s by way of sugar plantation laborers from Okinawa and other parts of Japan, where eating kaki-gori — sweetened shaved ice — dates to the royal families of the Heian period from 794 to 1185. Today’s shave ice is bolder than ever, with topping options like ice cream, salted dried plum, condensed milk or sweet red beans.
You’ll want to have shave ice at every port you cruise to, but Wailua Shave Ice, the wildly popular trailer started by two Kauai natives — one is an alum of the Culinary Institute of America and Per Se — is a standout from the rest. They create rich, shave ices from local fruit, topped with feather-light foam. Order the Lava Flow, a pineapple juice, coconut foam, and strawberry puree combo.
Wailua Shave Ice, 4-1306 Kuhio Hwy; 808-634-7183
For Malasadas on the Big Island
Malasadas, as they are known in Hawai’i, are a yeast-leavened doughnut enriched with eggs, butter, and sometimes milk. After frying, they are rolled in sugar. Though a traditional malasada is ungarnished, on the island they can be found filled with plain custard and coconut-flavored haupia pudding.
The treat was brought to Hawai’i with the 1878 arrival of Portuguese plantation laborers from the Madeira and Azores islands. Get your malasada fix before heading back to your ship and load up on sweet breads, pastries at this locals-favorite bake shop and restaurant near the Kona port.
Big Rob’s Bakery And Cafe, 82-6127 Mamalahoa Hwy; (808) 854-1843
For Plate Lunch on Maui
The quintessential local food, a plate lunch usually consists of two scoops of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and a meat entrée. Found at food trucks, drive-ins, and parking lot pop-up stalls all over the islands, this meal can be traced back to the late 1800s as a cheap, filling lunch for plantation workers. The various meat entrées reflect the many origins of plantation workers: China, Japan, the Philippines, and Portuguese colonies. And they all brought with them various dishes from their homelands, such as chicken or pork katsu, a Japanese dish of a thin, crispy breaded cutlet served with a sweet-and-sour red sauce; Chinese char siu-style roast pork; pork adobo, a Filipino braised dish; Portuguese sausage; and even salmon teriyaki.
You’ll be hungry during your overnight stay in Maui, so head to Poi By the Pound for a crash course into local plate classics: loco moco (beef patty topped with two eggs and smothered with gravy), saimin (ramen), kālua pork (slow-cooked pork butt) and poi.
Poi By the Pound, 430 Kele Street Kahului; 808-283-9381
Although the cuisine is enough to draw anyone to the islands, there’s a lot more to experience in Hawai’i than just its food. Learn more about Norwegian Cruise Line’s Hawai’i Itineraries here.