As snow replaces the fallen leaves and winter hits us like a runaway freight train, our minds will inevitably wander to the warmer months of summer’s past. Of course, one of the most iconic and postcard-worthy beach destinations is Hawaii, which anyone should consider for an oh-so-necessary escape from the cold. But if you can’t swing a trip right away, why not bring the flavors of the Aloha State into your own kitchen?
I was fortunate enough to attend the 12th annual Hawaii Food and Wine Festival in Maui last October. The three-day event featured chefs from all over the world, as well as local talent, as they showcased the food and drinks that have made them and their restaurants household names. From elaborate sit-down meals to a grand tasting along Kaanapali’s oceanside Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa (which culminated in fireworks!), it was a long weekend of good bites, good sips and, most importantly, good memories.
If you’ve got the time and budget, I highly recommend a trip to Kaanapali Beach Resort — Maui’s 3-mile stretch of tropical paradise that boasts 13 world-renowned resorts, 18 activities (UFO parasailing and Teralani’s snorkel and sail cruise are personal favorites) and 45 dining options (many of which are located in Whalers Village, a shopping plaza with dozens of high-end stores). But if you’re looking to satisfy that taste of Hawaii now, here are nine ingredients, dishes and exports recommended by three local chefs: Jayson Asuncion (Royal Lahaina Resort), Isaac Bancaco (Pacific‘o on the Beach) and Lee Anne Wong (Papa’aina at the Pioneer Inn)
And no, these don’t include Hawaiian stereotypes like macadamia nuts (which are actually indigenous to Australia) or pineapple-laden pizza (they just don’t do it).
Like shaved ice and poké, Spam musubi (grilled Spam on top of a block of rice and wrapped in nori) is often associated with Hawaiian cuisine. But unlike the former two that have become more mainstream among the islands’ tourist traps, Spam musubi is actually what the chefs eat during their off-hours.
“We eat it because it doesn’t spoil — we can take it to lunch after making it in the morning,” says Bancaco. “It’s delicious, and we all grew up on it, so it’s a familiar flavor.”
Wong echoes this sentiment, tracing Spam’s popularity back to Hawaii’s wartime era, where canned items were “convenient, fast and inexpensive.”
“Now, it’s everywhere,” she adds, revealing that her 4-year-old son loves the dish, especially the “magical, hot and crunchy” iterations found in 7-Eleven of all places.
Deep Seven Bottomfish
Seven bottom-feeding fish make up some of Hawaii’s most culturally significant ocean finds. And the good news is that there isn’t any sign of overfishing. Catches include ehu (squirrelfish snapper), gindai (Brigham’s snapper), hapuʻupuʻu (Seale’s grouper or Hawaiian grouper), kalekale (Von Siebold’s snapper), lehi (silverjaw snapper), onaga (longtail snapper) and ōpakapaka (pink snapper/crimson jobfish)
“These fish eat shrimp and smaller fish, and their diet is extremely clean,” says Bancaco. “Because of this pristine diet, their flesh is also pristine.”
Onaga, in particular, is beloved for its stunning red color and delicate flavor, which translates well to sashimi dishes.
Once extremely popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, these barbecue-flavored potato snacks (shaped like french fries) can be found in convenience stores across Hawaii.
“They’re like a fried chicharrón tossed in chili space,” raves Asuncion. “You don’t really see it anywhere else.”
That said, many locals will argue that older iterations were a lot spicier and fluffier than the mainstream varieties you find now, so be sure to ask around for what’s considered to be the most authentic.
Kukui nuts, otherwise known as “candlenuts,” are very nutty, somewhat bitter delicacies that can be pulverized into a powder or extracted for their oil.
“When roasted, dried and ground, its flesh is the number one flavoring component for traditional poké,” shares Bancaco. “Its extremely nutty flavor adds some depth.”
In addition to its use in food, kukui is said to have excellent skin-strengthening benefits like soothing eczema, moisturizing and reducing wrinkles.
Breadfruit has become quite common, especially among vegans, on the mainland, but it is rarely served in all of its ripening stages.
When it’s green, it’s extremely starchy and rarely used in food, but as it yellows and softens, it can initially be treated like a potato and served like patatas bravas with a spicy aioli.
“Once it is extremely ripe, we use it for desserts. It is more sugary, extremely juicy and smells like a floral, tropical fruit,” explains Bancaco.
It may be more of an “acquired taste,” at least according to Asuncion, but opihi are Hawaii’s limpets that live and grow on seaside rocks.
“Locals will pry them straight off the rock and slurp the gold-colored mussel,” he says. “It’s a very chewy texture with an oceanic taste.”
You can, of course, add soy or ponzu sauce or even toss them into a poké bowl, but that will mask its true flavor.
Wong is quick to remind tourists that Hawaiian food culture is rooted in the stable “canoe foods” Polynesians could rely on while taking trips across the ocean.
Poi, otherwise known as taro root, was traditionally “hand-pounded” and mixed with water to create an almost yogurt-like consistency that can be thickened to your liking. It can be eaten immediately as a sweet, light purple and highly nutritious carb or left to ferment for some added tang and the formation of gut-friendly probiotics.
Li Hing Mui
While li hing mui is not indigenous to the region, the Chinese dried and salted plum treat is extremely popular with locals. They also conjure up a bit of nostalgia.
“When you’re a kid, you suck on it, and you might mix it with half a lemon,” says Bancaco. “You can then suck up the lemon juice after.”
The sweet and sour treat can also be purchased in powder form and sprinkled on anything from fresh pineapple to cocktails.
Don’t sleep on Hawaiian meat.
“It’s not so commercialized,” says Asuncion, who claims that the quality of locally grown lamb, beef and world-famous kalua pork is exceptional because of the animals’ high-quality, typically grass-fed diets.
“I like to use ground lamb or their chops and tenderloins. We also use Maui cattle for tartare.”