Getting to the Roots of Hawaii Regional Cuisine

by Betty Fullard-Leo

Mention local food in Hawaii, and people think of fish and poi, plate lunches with macaroni salad and rice, squid luau made with taro leaves, or poke made of raw fish and seaweed. Mention regional cuisine in the Islands and people picture exquisite plates of beautifully prepared food, incorporating the freshest of fish and produce, often with aromatic flavors of ginger, soy and garlic, or ingredients unique to Hawaii, perhaps fern shoots gathered in Waipio Valley, or goat cheese from the Puna District.

What do the two cuisines have in common? They both evolved from ingredients grown and raised in the Islands that were mixed together by cooks from half-a-dozen different ethnic backgrounds, blending flavors specific to each culture. Regional cuisine could be considered an updated version of local food beautifully presented by professional chefs.

The roots of regional cuisine (as well as local food) can be traced to the arrival of the first Polynesians who brought food plants for sustenance in the new land - many are still used by fine chefs today. Among them, breadfruit (a large, green pulpy fruit) was a staple, along with taro (from which poi is made), coconuts, bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, sugar cane, kukui nut (ground roasted to make a flavoring called inamona), and mountain apples. Combined with Island fish such as mullet and mahimahi, and other seafood, like seaweed and the mussel called opihi (which continues to be a delicacy), the early Hawaiian diet was nutritious and low in fat, but possibly lacked the excitement of variety.

From the mid-1800's, as each wave of new immigrants came to work in the sugar cane fields, they introduced flavors and ingredients from their homelands - Chinese five-spice, char siu, tofu, soybeans and rice; Japanese sashimi, wasabi, soy and ginger; Portuguese sausage, bean soup, sweet breads, and malassadas; and Filipino patis (a thin fish sauce), bagoong (a thicker fish sauce) and the leaves of bitter melon, jicama, and marungary that are used in stews and soups.

The blending of cooking styles was inevitable in Hawaii's plantation villages. When Japanese contract laborers were imported in the 1880's, they lived side-by-side with Hawaiian and Chinese workers in simple, single-walled wooden houses. The Chinese built community cookhouses, the Japanese added mom-and-pop tofu (soybean curd) factories. People tasted their neighbors' food - at lunch time in the fields, at weekend gatherings and on special holidays.

When tourism came into its own in the mid 1900's, visitors used to grumble wryly, "The only good food you get in Hawaii is on the plane going over!" For years, Continental cuisine prepared by European chefs was considered the epitome of fine dining. But behind the scenes, in the kitchens of elegant restaurants, kitchen help feasted on interesting, flavorful treats they had learned to make at home. Alan Wong, whose Oahu restaurant wone the Hale "Aina Award in 1996 as Best New Restaurant and Best Restaurant says, "While I was growing up in Hawaii, my grandfather cooked Chinese and my mother cooked Japanese, but she mingled in flavors of Filipino, Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian dishes."

Wong, who first attracted the dining public's notice as chef of Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalow's Canoe House Restaurant, was one of twelve Island chefs who knew a good thing when he tasted it. In 1992, these innovative chefs formed Hawaii Regional Cuisine, Inc. One of their aims was to support local agriculture as a liaison between the culinary and agricultural communities and to promote Hawaii's cuisine out of state. Chefs from the group have appeared on television's "Great Chefs," they have cooked at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, and many of them have published their own cookbooks. Sam Choy, who owns Sam Choy's Restaurant and Catering in Kailua-Kona, is among the most recognizable. Choy has published three cookbooks and expanded to Oahu, where his Kapahulu restaurant is extraordinarily popular. This year he plans to open another Oahu restaurant, a family-style dinner and crab house at 580 North Nimitz Highway near downtown Honolulu.

Roy Yamaguchi was another of the original daring dozen, whose Euro-Asian interpretations earned him the James Beard Award for the Pacific and Northwest Region in 1993. In addition to operating ten restaurants, including the Big Island's Roy's Waikoloa Bar and Grill, this energetic chef hosts a weekly cooking show that airs on KHET every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. This season, several segments showcase Big Island enterprises: lobster aquaculture, fishing, coffee farming and the Macadamia Nut Festival in Hilo.

On the Big Island, numerous resort chefs have since discovered the advantages of using local products. At the Hilton Waikoloa Village, all the restaurants use local ingredients: mint grown at Bree Farm in Waimea, sprouts from Lone Palm in North Kohala, bananas from Keau, and Kona Cold Lobster from Keahole, but regional cuisine is the particular focus at the Kona Provision Company, a lovely indoor-outdoor restaurant where diners sometimes spot whales breaching offshore. Here Chef Patrick Heymann bakes an imaginative Keahole lobster lasagna made with goat cheese from the Hamakua area for lunch, while at dinner the Hukilau Pie is melange of Island fish, shrimp, scallops and Keahole lobster sauteed in a garlic and wine sauce, topped with tomatillo sauce and baked au gratin encircled by mashed potatoes. This dish has got to be called regional cuisine; to be considered "local food," it would have to be served with rice!

At another established resort, Kona Village, Executive Chef Glenn Alos oversees an outdoor luncheon buffet, two restaurants and a luau. Every outlet features distinctly different flavors but all have a touch of the Islands in their ingredients: the upscale Hale Samoa offers Pacific Rim presentations, Hale Moana features American-style cuisine with regional touches and the outdoor luncheon buffet has casual Island-style dining. The Kona Village luau especially is known as one of the finest in the islands not only because of its outdoor setting under palm trees surrounded by lagoons, but because the kalua pork (from pigs raised on the island) comes out of the undergrond oven tender and moist, and other items are authentic luau fare - opihi, squid luau and chicken long rice among them. Luau food is considered "local-style" rather than regional cuisine.

In Kona, Daniel Thiebaut, who established a stellar reputation for a more sophisticated version of classy Island cuisine years ago when he opened Palm Cafe, last year moved to head up The Tropics restaurant at the Royal Kona Resort. Guests might choose to eat at The Tropics initially because it boasts beautiful sunsets and is conveniently located in their hotel, but once they try the oven-roasted sea scallops in light coconut milk-curry sauce garnished with tropical fruit marmalade or the vegetarian parsley and corn cake with Kona-grown field greens and Thai curry vinaigrette, they come back again and again for the food.

At the nearby Keauhou Beach Hotel's kuakini Terrace, Island-style cuisine emerges from butter lettuces and other produce grown by Maluhia Farms in Captain Cook and fish caught by local fishermen in the surrounding waters. Buffet nights in the ocean-view dining room might feature local seafood done with a Hawaiian flavor. But regional cuisine isn't served in resort hotels exclusively. You can enjoy regional styles in restaurants that range from down-home, to sophisticated, to tropical-resort in ambiance. David Palmer's chic but casual Cafe Pesto at Kawaihae was so successful after it opened in 1989, that he opened a second casual-chic eatery in Hilo in 1993. Palmer believes freshness is the key to flavor, whether it be in pizza made with fresh basil pesto or in seafood risotto featuring sweet Thai chili and Hawaiian spiny lobster, scallops and prawns.

In decidedly rural Hawi, the tropical-themed Bamboo Restaurant makes you feel as if you've stumbled on the set of South Pacific, with waitress Aunty Mary Cabrilera, who looks like Bloody Mary decked out in a little straw hat. Fresh orchids, bamboo, ferns and walls painted with tropical foliage make you want to tie on a lava lava and go barefoot in Paradise - the nice thing is, at the Bamboo Restaurant, you can. To attract local people, owners, Joan and Jim Channon introduced easy-on-the-pocketbook "Kohala Night" every Tuesday with some specials priced at $6. Says Joan, "Our regional cuisine combines flavors from around the Pacific. We're famous for our chicken satay potstickers that have a Thai flavor in a Chinese dumpling served with sweet chili-mint sauce. We also do a seared poke with pipinola shoots - pipinola is a native Hawaiian squash shoot."

Big Island farmers are among the leaders in producing specialty crops that chefs stir into regional cuisine dishes, possibly because more land at cheaper prices is available since the demise of the sugar industry, than on other islands. In any case, farmers, fishermen and aquaculturists produce, raise and supply macadamia nuts, Hawaiian Vintage chocolate, hydroponic lettuce, Kona coffee, Puna goat cheese, Kona Cold Lobsters, Sparkle greens, taro, and fish such as ahi (tuna), shutome (swordfish), opah (moonfish), and opakapaka (snapper) that make Hawaii's cuisine unique.

As recently as 20 years ago, international gourmands would never have believed that pig and poi, shoyu and somen, dim sum and daikon could blend in Hawaii's melting pot to produce a regional cuisine as distinctive and delicious as the Creole or Southwestern styles found on the Mainland. Today, travelers and Islanders know Hawaii's sunshine means more than just a perfect day at the beach, it also translates to verdant fields and a growing season that produces picture-perfect regional cuisine year round.

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