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Hawaii: A Tropical Food Paradise with Polynesian and Asian Roots

Aloha! Welcome to paradise! These words greet me at Honolulu as I step off the plane from New York. A year into the pandemic, and after enduring a bone-chilling February filled with record snow, I was ready for some sun and natural beauty. I felt secure that Hawaii would be a safe destination after reading that it was ranked lowest in Covid-19 infections in March, 2021. On arrival, Oahu had just reopened and I was pleasantly surprised to see that face masks were mandatory everywhere, even to the beach!

Oahu is a small island and one can cover its periphery by car in half a day but the island has so much to offer in outdoor activities and food diversity that it’s easy for one to sightsee for 10 days or more without getting apathetic.

A Polynesian Feast (photo: Ramaa Reddy)

Hawaii’s Polynesian History

Hawaii was occupied solely by Polynesians and Tahitians until 1778 when Captain Cook arrived.  Christian missionaries followed many years later with the Chinese and Japanese making it a multicultural society, albeit skewed Asian. Interestingly, Hawaii was a monarchy before being annexed by the U.S. and its last sovereign ruler, Lili’uokalani, who lived in the Lolani Palace was forced to abdicate in 1895. I recommend visiting the palace as the audio tour is educative about Hawaii’s history and royalty.

As I was curious to learn more about Hawaii’s Polynesian roots I visited the Polynesian Culture Center, located in the northern part of the Island. The center hosts a nightly five-hour program which is popular with families and includes: a tour of make-believe Polynesian Islands, learning the hula by sashaying one’s hips to lilting Hawaiian song, being garlanded with an orchid lei, and enjoying a magnificent Hawaiian feast. The evening concludes with a live outdoor Polynesian show packed with music and dance.

Hawaiian Food

Wanting to try some authentic Polynesian dishes, I was steered by friends to Da Ono Hawaiian Foods,  a small family owned restaurant decorated with photographs of beautiful Hawaiian girls and picturesque sunsets.

The restaurant is well known for its Pork Laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaves) and Kalua Pig (slow roasted pork rubbed with sea salt and liquid smoke and then shredded). Traditionally, this dish is cooked in an underground oven called an Imu and best served with poi (a starchy purple pudding made from taro root) which is quintessentially Hawaiian.

I had the Kalua Pig alongside sweet potato and a traditional dessert made from coconut milk called Haupia whose texture is a cross between a pudding and jello. The meal was delicious, truly reflecting the owner’s intent.

Kalua Pig with Haupia (photo: Ramaa Reddy)

Today, contemporary chefs like Ed Kenney use local and organic ingredients to modernized local dishes and comfort foods for sophisticated palettes. I visited one of Kenney’s restaurants, Mahina & Suns, and had a taro burger, filled with avocado, greens and tomato on a gluten-free bun. The result was scrumptious and filling.

The Ubiquitous Poke

Alongside Laulau is poke, a beloved seafood dish that also originated with the Polynesians. Originally, Poke was made from raw reef fish seasoned with seaweed, salt and crushed kukui nut (candlenut). Today’s poke has evolved and often made with bright pink ahi tuna, flavored with soy sauce, sesame oil and served with assorted additions. The dish’s popularity is celebrated annually at a Poke festival in March. In Haleiwa, a popular food destination in Oahu’s North Shore, filled with food trucks selling everything from fruit juices, garlic shrimp and fried food, I tried the the Poke bowl at Poke for the People which was filled with crab salad, edamame, spicy tuna, ocean salad and ginger. The bowl was drizzled with Japanese seasonings of furikake and unagi and the result was pleasing as the tuna was fresh and piquant.

Poke-Bowl-at-Poke-for-the-People(photo/ Ramaa Reddy)

Food Trucks in Haleiwa

Kenney does a vegetarian offering of poke at his other restaurant, Mud Hen Water, made from beetroots. Another poke restaurant popular with locals is Off the Hook, where I had Hawaiian style tuna and spicy tuna combination topped with seaweed, tempura flakes, green onions and fish eggs. Located across from the Manoa Marketplace, this take-out only joint is known to procure the freshest catch daily from the Honolulu fish auction.

Shaved Ice & Malasadas

The popular and ubiquitous Kakigori (shaved ice) can be traced to the island’s plantation past where Japanese immigrants working in tropical pineapple and sugar fields found ingenious ways to cool themselves down – shaving blocks of ice and drizzling it with fruit juice and sugar. I visited a popular outpost called Matsumoto’s which has been around since 1951.

The store offers a dazzling choice of fruit flavors and toppings and I tried the passion fruit and guava topped with Li Hing powder – a sweet and tart powder made from Chinese plum. Adding Azuki beans (red Japanese beans cooked in sugar) to my creation made this my refreshing treat for a warm day. 

The arrival of Portuguese plantation laborers from Azores islands brought another popular delicacy – malasada, a sugar-coated deep-fried donut made from flour and eggs. The best can be found at Leonard’s Bakery in a variety of flavors. My favorite was the chocolate alongside one sprinkled with Li Hing. These rounded balls, crisp on the outside and fluffy inside, pair well with morning coffee!

Malasadas (photo: Ramaa Reddy)

Mediterranean Dosas & Thai Green Curry

After a few days of poke, I was hankering for some good spicy food and was pleasantly surprised to find Ganesh Dosa, a food stall in the Ohana Hale Marketplace in Oahu. Pablo Muller, the Argentinian owner and his Japanese wife Moe, learnt the art while living at an ashram in upstate New York. I had the Mediterranean, filled with sun dried tomatoes and Kalamata olives and accompanied with sambar and coconut chutney. The dosa was crisp in texture and healthy.

Ganesh Dosa (photo: Ramaa Reddy)

A complementary dish to sample is the vegetarian tofu green curry at the popular Noi Thai Cuisine in Waikiki.  The dish is slightly pungent but extremely flavorful.

Food Bike Trip

I concluded my trip by doing a historical city bike tour with Bike Tour Hawaii. Kelly, who owns the outfit, leads visitors on food tours as well and took me into China Town where I had wholesome sugarcane juice spiked with calamansi lemons.

Sugarcane Juice in Chinatown (photo: Ramaa Reddy)

I was surprised to taste Alphonso mangoes in February but Kelly told me they are flown in from Mexico and mentioned that Hawaii’s best mango season lasts from May through August. When I was surprised to learn that mangoes are available throughout the year in Oahu, Kelly replied,

“You would expect nothing less in paradise.”

Ramaa Reddy

Ramaa Reddy is a writer, photographer, food and travel specialist who blogs at venturetraveller.com