When you live on a tropical paradise you must have adopted healthy, fresh, light eating habits – right? That’s the beautiful paradise picture we paint in our head. However Hawaii is an interesting little slice of paradise that is nothing like it’s tropical neighbors of Bali or SE Asia when it comes to eating. It has a complex history of war, occupation, and plantation life that have influenced the food culture. I recently took a local food tour in Oahu to learn a bit more about the food traditions in Hawaii outside the typical tourist luau that we are normally exposed to. Most popular Hawaiian food eaten by locals has a heavy Asian influence from Japan, the Philippines, China, and Korea. In fact, most everything we tried on the tour had an Asian twist to it; the Hawaiians took it, put a little local twist on it and made it their own.
“My goal isn’t to simply have you eat Oahu local food, it’s to take you to places where locals eat,“ our guide Ryan said. “I’m not a good cook, that’s why I started this company in 2013 because I know where to eat out,” Ryan said with a knowing smile. I liked this idea of a local food tour – it really was more about the experience than the actual food that was on the plate.
We met just outside of the heavily touristed Waikiki area in the Ala Moana neighborhood; it was bustling with activity. Many of the locals who work in the Waikiki area come to this area to eat lunch. Ryan’s first piece of advice – “Don’t fill up on the rice, we are eating a lot this afternoon!”
Add Some Color to Your Diet
We started at Yogurstory, a Korean sit down restaurant, before I knew it our table turned into 50 shades of purple! A stack of purple pancakes were placed in the middle of the table, accompanied by taro lattes. The lattes get their color from the taro root – a common starchy vegetable historically grown in Hawaii. And the pancakes were made with ube, a type of purple yam commonly used in the Philippines for desserts. The ube was a florescent shade of purple that about hurt my eyes, but the taste was delicious. Not as sweet, as the color would have had you think, but definitely tasty.
Hawaii has not hopped on the latest food truck bandwagon, instead it’s been leading the way in food truck restaurants for a while now. From the first time I went to Hawaii I remember the garlic shrimp food trucks out at the North Shore. However the trucks have also set up camp in the city too. We walked around the corner from the restaurant and stopped at a truck with smoke pouring out of it. No need to be frightened, the smoke was the byproduct of some of the best pork baby back ribs I’ve ever had; just lightly sweet like honey. The Kau Kau Grill food truck had a line of local people waiting for their garlic shrimp, poke, and those delicious ribs, and I was happy to be among them if it meant I got to eat more ribs!
Most people don’t think of dining at a supermarket – unless you are in Hawaii. No, I’m not talking deli food. At the Japanese/Asian supermarket, Don Quijota, was an open air food court with picnic tables. There were a number of Asian food stalls with a vibe that reminded me of Hawker centers in Singapore. Locals were lined up outside of a stall watching a woman meticulously make Takoyaki balls rolling the batter with chopsticks in a cast iron skillet that looked sort of like a muffin pan. Takoyaki is a savory Japanese street food about the size of a golf ball made with a special batter filled with pickled ginger, green onions, octopus, teriyaki sauce, and topped with bonito flakes. This is not street food for the picky eater. In fact, Takoyaki is probably not for most people based on the reaction of others in our group, but I loved it. It was a complex mixture of textures and tastes with a bit of a fishy taste – and it was delicious.
Spam – the Other Meat
Yes – I know, you are crinkling your nose up right now. But don’t be so fast to judge as for some reason eating a hot dog in NYC from a street vendor is acceptable, but eating Spam isn’t. Let’s face it, Spam is just a hot dog with more girth – so get over it. Next we stopped at a tiny local spot which specialized in the mystery meat that has won Hawaiian’s hearts.
As we walked to the Spam musubi stop Ryan filled us in on how the notorious pressed meat became so popular in Hawaii. During and shortly after WWII, fishing was banned around Hawaii so the locals and the Army had to find other ways to get their protein – enter Hormel’s signature product, Spam. It was cheap and plentiful to feed the troops as well as people working on plantations. They marinated the spam in teriyaki sauce, fried it up, and then placed it on top of rice wrapped in nori. Sort of like a poor man’s sushi, but much larger and more filling.
The ‘restaurant’ we stopped at was literally a little hole in the wall. It was simply a small room in which a total of 3 people could fit inside at the same time. Locals placed orders to go only. I had eaten regular Spam musubi before in Hawaii so I was ready to try one of their other ‘flavors’ they offered. You could get them with bacon and a fried egg, other herbs, cheese, and I chose to have the plum sauce with spam. It gave it a bit of a salty sour taste that I enjoyed.
At the heart of Hawaii’s local greasy food scene is a dish that you just need to eat because it has a cool name – loco moco. White rice, topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and brown gravy – and it’s eaten at any time of day breakfast (great for hangovers!), lunch, dinner, or snack. A food with such a cool name comes with a cool (and debated) story of course. Some say it was created so high school kids could afford a snack at a local Hilo café and some say it was a created as the ultimate sports/surfing snack as it’s filled with carbs and protein. Whatever the story, it’s greasy goodness…that will clog your arteries – real Hawaiian food.
Pineapple is Still King
Finally – some fresh fruit from the tropical island – sort of. When was the last food tour you went on that took you to a Walgreens? We finished with a rare Hawaiian treat – Dole Whip – a frozen soft serve pineapple treat served only in a few places on earth. And strangely enough, the Walgreens in Hawaii is one of them. It was a really delicious light and fresh compliment to all of the greasy, meaty dishes we had during the tour.
The Eat Like a Local Hawaii Food Tour lived up to its name, as all of the places he took us were places no tourists ever would have wandered into on their own. In fact most were little local dives and food courts with delicious Asian inspired food. However all of them were places I’d come back to in a heartbeat. This is the real side of Hawaii that few people get to experience. Far, far away from the touristy luau’s and sunset dinner cruises. This is the real Hawaii.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Viator Tours for this food extravaganza – however all opinions are my own.