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With its tropical climate, diverse cultures, and island location far from the mainland United States, Hawaii has developed a unique and iconic cuisine all its own. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Hawaii is most famous for local dishes like poke bowls, loco moco, shave ice, spam musubi, and macadamia nuts.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the many delicious foods and ingredients that the Aloha State is renowned for both across the islands and around the world. Read on to learn about the tropical fruits, tasty plate lunches, sweet desserts, savory snacks, and more that Hawaii does best.

Signature Local Dishes

Poke Bowls

Poke bowls, consisting of raw fish served over rice, have become one of Hawaii’s most popular culinary exports in recent years. However, poke has long been a local Hawaiian favorite. The raw fish salad traces its origins to Native Hawaiian cuisine, where fishermen would eat the cut-offs from their catch.

This dish has evolved to usually feature thick chunks of fresh ahi tuna or salmon tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil, seaweed, and chili pepper. Poke bowls as we know them today then add other toppings like avocado, edamame, cucumber, and pickled ginger over a base of white or brown rice.

According to a 2010 article, the popularity of poke bowls began surging in the 1990s in Hawaii, pioneered by chefs like Sam Choy. There are now hundreds of poke shops and restaurants offering their own signature bowls across the Hawaiian islands.

Favorite poke bowl toppings reflect the diversity of Hawaii, with Japanese and other Asian influences seen in additions like seaweed salad and kimchi joining more conventional American fare like bacon bits.

The beloved dish has now also spread far beyond Hawaii to major mainland US cities and even internationally.

Loco Moco

Loco moco is another signature Hawaiian plate featuring rice, beef, eggs, and gravy. According to a 2019 article, the hearty meal was invented in 1949 by Richard Inouye, the owner of the Lincoln Grill in Hilo.

He wanted an inexpensive special for local teens and came up with serving white rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg, and brown gravy. It quickly became a hit with diners of all ages for an affordable, filling, and tasty combination.

There are now many variations on the loco moco with different meats or additional toppings. Some popular options are a fried spam or fish cake patty instead of hamburger or extras like mushrooms, bacon, onions, or even macaroni salad on top.

However, the classic combination with rice, beef, egg, and gravy is still a beloved staple menu item at family restaurants across the islands. It’s a top choice when locals crave some comforting classic Hawaiian flavors.

Shave Ice

Shave ice is Hawaii’s iconic take on a snow cone. This sweet treat likely has its background in Japanese kakigōri but with local tropical twists. The dessert consists of fine shavings of ice flavored and topped with sweet and fruity syrups.

Popular options include Hawaii staples like guava, lilikoi (passionfruit), and coconut syrups. Condensed or evaporated milk are also common to add a creamy element.

Today, numerous shave ice stores and food trucks can be found across Hawaii. Some spots even get creative by adding fruits, mochi balls, sweetened condensed milk ice cream, azuki beans, or other surprise toppings onto the towering mound of flavored ice.

According to, over the past decade shave ice consumption has increased over 50% in the islands as specialty shave ice shops keep gaining popularity and bringing innovations to this nostalgic treat.

Spam Musubi

Spam musubi is a popular snack and another Hawaiin food mash-up with Asian roots. It consists of a slice of grilled spam secured atop a block of rice by a strip of nori seaweed. The tangy and salty spam combined with sweet rice and umami seaweed makes a winning portable meal.

According to the Hawaii Magazine, musubi originates from Japanese rice balls called onigiri. During World War II, canned meat became common in Hawaii, and the invention of putting spam on rice blocks wrapped with nori likely emerged on the islands sometime in the 1960s.

Now, spam musubi can be found everywhere from convenience stores to school cafeterias to upscale restaurants in Hawaii. The block shape wrapped in nori makes it an easy grab-and-go meal. Islanders have also gotten creative with countless variations that swap out the spam for other meats like Portuguese sausage or kalua pork.

However, the classic spam musubi endures as an iconic Hawaiian snack blending cultural influences.

Fruits and Nuts

Hawaii’s tropical climate allows a variety of delicious fruits and nuts to grow incredibly well. Many of these have become synonymous with Hawaiian cuisine and culture over the years. Let’s explore some of the tasty produce Hawaii is renowned for.


The sweet, juicy pineapple is perhaps Hawaii’s most iconic fruit. Over 80% of U.S. pineapple production takes place in Hawaii. The fruit thrives in Hawaii’s volcanic soil and consistent warmth. Popular pineapple varieties grown commercially include the Smooth Cayenne, Kona Sugarloaf, and Maui Gold.Hawaiian pineapples are revered for their balanced sweet and tart flavor.


Coconuts have been integral to Hawaiian cuisine, traditions, and daily life for centuries. Various parts of the coconut palm are used – from the meat and water of the coconut itself to the leaves for weaving. Hawaii has the perfect subtropical environment for coconuts to thrive.

The Hamakua Coast on the Big Island has rich volcanic soil ideal for growing delicious coconuts.

Lilikoi (Passionfruit)

The exotic passionfruit is a tropical treat perfectly suited to Hawaii’s climate. There are two main types of passionfruit grown – the bright yellow variety often used for juice and the miniature purple passionfruit prized for its intense flavor.

Passionfruit adds a wonderfully sweet, tart, aromatic element to desserts, drinks, sauces, and more in Hawaiian restaurants and homes.


Brought by settlers from Central America, the apple-shaped guava adapts wonderfully to Hawaii. Guava trees dot backyards and country roads across the islands. Locals enjoy the delicate strawberry-like scent and flavor of the fruit out-of-hand or in jelly and drinks.

Researchers have uncovered incredible nutrition and health properties of the humble guava.


Juicy, sweet mangoes reach their peak flavor in Hawaii’s balmy climate. They were introduced to the islands in the 19th century. While Hawaii doesn’t lead mango production, favored varieties like Pirie, Hayden, and Manila pride themselves on rich flavors and textures.

Locals and tourists alike enjoy sinking their teeth into a ripe mango – the perfect snack.


Papaya is yet another tropical fruit that thrives in Hawaii. The islands host around 200 papaya farms. The most common type of papaya found is Solo – small, oblong-shaped, weighing about a pound with juicy orange-colored flesh. Papayas are rich in vitamins, antioxidants and enzymes.

Locals sprinkle fresh lemon or lime juice onto sliced papaya for a sweet and sour burst of flavor.

Macadamia Nuts

No talk of Hawaii’s bounty is complete without mentioning mac nuts. Hawaii produces 99% of the U.S.’s supply of the buttery nuts. Macadamia trees landed on the Big Island in the 1880s and found the nutrient-dense volcanic soil extremely favorable.

Shelled macadamia nuts are coveted in baking and confections, while locals and tourists enjoy flavors like macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi.

Ethnic Influences


Japanese cuisine has had a major influence on the food culture in Hawaii. When Japanese immigrants came to work on the sugar plantations in the 19th century, they brought their cooking traditions with them. Some popular Japanese-inspired dishes in Hawaii include:

  • Sushi – Hawaii has embraced sushi and features creative rolls with tropical ingredients like mango and avocado.
  • Saimin – These Japanese noodle soups are a beloved comfort food and quick meal in Hawaii.
  • Mochi – The soft, chewy rice cakes are popular snacks and desserts.
  • Musubi – These handheld rice balls wrapped with seaweed are a convenient on-the-go bite.

Ingredients like soy sauce, ginger, seaweed, daikon radish, and sesame are now commonplace in Hawaiian cooking thanks to Japanese influence.


Chinese immigrants also played a major role in shaping Hawaii’s cuisine. They originally came to work the sugar plantations and opened restaurants that introduced dishes like:

  • Chow mein
  • Fried rice
  • Egg rolls
  • Won ton soup

Some Chinese-Hawaiian specialties include dishes like:<

  • Saimin – The Japanese noodle soup often also contains Chinese influences like bok choy, bamboo shoots, and Char Siu pork.
  • Manapua – These tasty steamed buns with fillings are a popular snack.

Ingredients widely used in Chinese cooking like ginger, garlic, scallions, soy sauce and sesame oil are ubiquitous in island dishes thanks to Chinese influence.


Filipinos are one of the largest ethnic groups in Hawaii today. During the early 1900s many Filipinos immigrated to work the sugar and pineapple plantations. Traditional Filipino dishes like adobo, pancit noodles, and lumpia evolved with local ingredients like pineapple, macadamia nuts and mahi-mahi.

Some Filipino-inspired mixed plates featuring these foods along with rice are popular lunch choices. Filipino-style barbecue features meat marinated in a blend of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic and spices then grilled over coconut husk charcoal, adding delicious flavor.

The Filipino tradition of celebrating with festive pig roasts called Lechon is also common in Hawaii for special occasions.


Korean immigration to Hawaii peaked between 1903-1905. Korean workers brought their spicy, flavorful cuisine with them. Some Korean dishes and ingredients have assimilated into modern Hawaiian cuisine like:

  • Kimchi – This fermented cabbage is a popular condiment.
  • Bulgogi – Thinly sliced grilled beef marinated in pear, garlic, soy and other Korean flavors.

The red pepper paste gochujang is now used by some Hawaiian chefs to add a spicy kick to dishes. Korean-style fried chicken is also gaining popularity in Hawaii, cooked up with a spicy, sticky, and slightly sweet glaze.


In the mid-1800s, Portuguese immigrants came to Hawaii to work the sugar plantations. Their presence introduced foods like malasadas (fried doughnuts without a hole), chourico sausage, bean soup, and pao doce (Portuguese sweet bread rolls).

A popular lunch choice is the Plate Lunch which features macaroni salad, rice and a protein like Portuguese sausage. The Portuguese sweet bread is a favorite for making French toast and Hawaiian sandwiches in the mornings.

And malasadas are a beloved snack and dessert, especially when stuffed with tropical fruits and custards. Portuguese bean soup seasoned with chourico is hearty comfort food. Annual festivals like the Great Hawaiian Portugal Sausage Showdown celebrate these significant Portuguese influences.

Regional Specialties

Kona Coffee

Kona coffee is considered one of Hawaii’s most prized regional specialties. The rich volcanic soil and ideal climate of the Kona district on the Big Island provide the perfect conditions for growing exceptional coffee.

Kona coffee beans have a distinctive flavor profile – mild, smooth, and slightly sweet with a hint of spice.

According to the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, only coffee grown in the North and South Kona districts can be labeled as authentic Kona. There are around 600 Kona coffee farms, mostly small family-owned operations. Popular varieties include Typica, Guatemala, and Kona Hybrid.

Fun fact: Kona coffee makes up just 1% of Hawaii’s total coffee production but has an outsized influence. It’s one of Hawaii’s most sought-after and expensive coffees, with 100% Kona regularly selling for $40-60 per pound.

Molokai Sweet Bread

Sweet bread is a treasured tradition in many Hawaiian households, but Molokai is particularly renowned for its signature sweet bread recipes. Locals trace it back to the island’s flourishing plantation days in the late 1800s, when Filipino workers brought their sweet bread-making skills.

What sets Molokai sweet bread apart is the creative twists added to the dough or fillings, like ripe banana, coconut, mango or papaya, haupia (coconut) or macadamia nut spread. Sweet breads are lovingly shaped into rounds, braids, wreaths or other festive forms.

On Molokai, these special loaves often take center stage at gatherings with family and friends. The enticing aroma of freshly baked sweet bread evokes the aloha spirit and reminds locals of cherished celebrations.

Hawaiian Sweet Rolls

Sweet rolls are found everywhere from local bakeries to dinner tables in Hawaii. But Hawaiian sweet rolls have a distinctive tropical twist that sets them apart. Recipes typically include pineapple juice, shredded coconut, mashed banana or coconut milk.

According to Hawaiian historians, Portuguese immigrants first introduced the method of making sweet rolls from dough left over from bread loaves. Locals then customized the rolls by incorporating native ingredients. Now they are a staple at many potluck meals, birthday parties and holiday feasts.

Surveys show Hawaiian sweet rolls beat out dinner rolls and biscuits as the state’s most beloved specialty. Their mildly sweet taste beautifully complements a Hawaiian plate lunch or barbecue spread.


Known as kalo in Hawaiian, taro has been a staple crop and cultural icon for native Hawaiians for centuries. The starchy tuberous root is highly versatile – it can be steamed, boiled, baked or fried into various traditional Hawaiian dishes like poi, laulau, kalua pig, squid luau and more.

Taro is also used to produce one of Hawaii’s signature desserts, haupia pudding. The purple taro variety lends its vibrant color and rich, nutty flavor to this creamy coconut milk-based treat. Nowadays, creative chefs are incorporating taro into modern fusion cuisine as well – like taro burgers or taro fries.

Fun fact: Hawaii produces over 90% of all taro grown in the United States. Taro farming and processing provide valuable jobs, especially in rural communities. Advocates hope to revive taro’s cultural significance to future generations.


From the immensely popular poke and loco moco to tropical fruits, ethnic cuisine, sweet treats, and Kona coffee, it’s clear Hawaii offers an abundance of incredible signature foods. The island state’s cuisine showcases both indigenous and multi-cultural influences that have blended beautifully over time thanks to Hawaii’s remote location in paradise.

Whether planning a trip yourself or looking to bring back an edible souvenir, be sure sample the many delicious dishes and ingredients that the Aloha State is so rightly proud of.

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