Growing up, my mom dangled a McDonald’s breakfast platter in front of my sister and me each morning, to offset the exasperating task of waking us up for school. The bribe was enticing enough to awaken our sleepy heads and inspire movement.
It may be surprising to hear that in Hawaii, the McDonald’s menu gives a realistic glimpse of the island’s cuisine. In addition to the classic fried apple pie, you’ll find pies filled with taro, haupia (coconut), or pineapple. And alongside the usual morning-time hash browns and McMuffins are breakfast platters containing rice, Spam or Portuguese sausage, and scrambled eggs. I distinctly remember how the fast-food chain’s flimsy, dull plastic cutlery required multiple passes over the sliced sausage rounds on my plate, and the struggle to open the shoyu (soy sauce) packet to douse my sticky rice for umami-filled bites.
The food of Hawaii is a history lesson on a plate—said breakfast plate included. Like an edible museum, Hawaii’s fresh, smoked, pickled and stewed foods express its evolution from kingdom to U.S. territory and eventual statehood.
“The food of Hawaii is a fusion or creole cuisine, with elements from three major migrations into the islands,” says Rachel Laudan, food historian and author of The Food of Paradise. “There are some elements from Native Hawaiian migration, [from] Anglo-migration, and from the migration from Asia.”
For instance, my favorite breakfast of rice, eggs, and sausage rounds traces back to the time of Hawaii’s burgeoning cane sugar industry, which signaled the beginning of a major shift in the island’s demographics and everyday diets. The native Hawaiian population, largely wiped out by disease from outsider contact, couldn’t sustain the labor needed to support this growing industry. Thus, in the late 1700s, sugar lured laborers from China, Japan, the Portuguese islands of the Azores, and Madeira; by the early 1900s, laborers joined from Korea and the Philippines, and in smaller numbers, from Puerto Rico, Okinawa, Germany, and Norway. My own great-grandfather arrived in Hawaii from the Philippines, working first on a plantation on Maui or the Big Island before transferring to and settling in Kauai.
With these immigrant communities came the various elements of the breakfast plate: Savory, spiced Portuguese sausage (or linguiça) made its way across the Atlantic by kindred islanders escaping failed vineyards. Steamed white rice, originally imported to feed Chinese plantation workers, appears on Hawaiian restaurant menus of all stripes, from casual, buffet-style lunch counters to slick white tablecloths; nearly every home owns a rice cooker. The Japanese brought shoyu, which remains a standard condiment in restaurants and at home. Eggs can be traced to chickens raised by the first Polynesian settlers, and later, the arrival of British explorer Captain James Cook.
With the influx of these communities, Hawaii’s local food evolved from the need to improvise in a new land. People brought familiar recipes, mixed them with the food they were served on the plantation, and incorporated the ingredients of their neighbors. Many immigrant groups arrived with the intent to return to their home countries. Many stayed. “It sounds awfully naive if you live in Hawaii, but I had no idea that there was such an ethnic mix,” recalls Laudan, who arrived for a teaching post in 1987 at the University of Hawaii. She speculates that after World War II and Hawaii’s statehood in 1959 came an even greater need to create a common culture; with the population moving into the towns and opening restaurants, food served as social glue and a new identity for the 50th state.
By the time this Millennial entered the world, foods from different ethnic groups were, and still are, staples of local food in Hawaii. Goteburg musubi (a Swedish-style sausage-and-rice ball) from the cafeteria fueled mornings before classes at Kauai High. Poke and sashimi paired with sinus-clearing spicy mustard and shoyu were never missing from beach potluck spreads, nestled next to Filipino-inspired pancit and chicken adobo. Weekend volleyball tournaments on the West side of the island prompted sneaky shave-ice breaks (a nod to Japan) at JoJo’s.
And there are so many more options spread across the islands. For a delicious crash course on island eats, look no further than Tip Top Cafe in Lihue, Kauai. The unpretentious, bustling eatery where my mother once worked as a waitress as a teen my number one “must-stop” on the rare occasion I’m back on “the rock.” When you’re at Tip Top, be sure to order the oxtail soup. Other good bets on Kauai include Mark’s Place in Lihue for a plate lunch, or a tub of poke at Koloa Fish Market. I also stand by the 7-11 stores selling spam musubi and manapua.
On Oahu, stake your place in line at Leonard’s Bakery, home of arguably the best malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) in Hawaii. Take your bag of delectable fried carbohydrates, caressed in sugar, to enjoy at Waikiki beach, because ambiance (but really because there’s no seating in the doughnut shop). Elsewhere, take a cue from the locals; the more unassuming the cafe, drive-in, or diner, the better. Or, head for those familiar golden arches.
- 2 pounds pork butt, about ⅔ lean to ⅓ fat
- ¼ cups water
- 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
- 8 pieces garlic, finely chopped
- 2 pieces dried red chile peppers, deseeded and finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 pinch paprika