Not long ago, my 73-year-old Aunty Elaine, a lifelong Honolulu resident who stands 4‘11 with shoes on, was busted for trying to mail us lychee fruit bought ripe off the back of a truck. Days later, the box arrived in my family’s Seattle home, empty save for a slip of paper notifying us that sending uninspected fruit to the mainland is illegal.
Who can blame us for missing the flavors of the islands, especially these days? My mom’s lineage is Japanese American from Hawai‘i, and for as long as I can remember, we’ve always returned home from our visits there with suitcases filled with products that transport us right back again: dried fruit covered with sweet-tart li hing mui powder; creamy lilikoi butter; lighter-than-air guava chiffon cake (yes, an entire cake); pillowy taro-flavored sweet rolls; plump Portuguese sausage; and that tender pork and taro leaf packet known as laulau.
These flavors serve as more than souvenirs. When we’re buttering our toast with lilikoi butter, we’re tasting one of the flavors that defines the multicultural landscape from which we came, a unique confluence of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean and Filipino cultures, among others. Over the generations, each immigrant group imported and grew its own produce on the islands, learning to share one other’s traditions while paying homage to distinct lineages.
“To understand local food in Hawai’i, you have to look at what the building blocks are,” says Alana Kysar, the author of the cookbook Aloha Kitchen. “Each ingredient is unique to the culture that brought it here, but Hawai’i has its own food culture that encompasses all of these different groups.”
Every Hawai‘i resident can tell you how this diversity manifests in his or her daily life. My Japanese American family reads our Chinese horoscope each year, and we’ve always had Korean kimchi in the fridge next to the ketchup. Chef Sheldon Simeon, who was born on the Island of Hawai’i and now lives on Maui, where he runs the restaurant Tin Roof, is Filipino American, but the Polynesian dish of laulau is a family holiday tradition, and his kids play old Hawai’ian songs on the ukulele, an instrument brought over by the Portuguese.
When it comes to Hawaiians, “we’re all about the ohana — the family — and sharing with one another, and that’s the way we like to eat, too,” says the James Beard Award-nominated Simeon, whose new cookbook, Cook Real Hawai‘i, is out in March. “There’s no competitiveness among the cultures here. We’re stoked when we can share each other’s values, and that’s how it is on the table.”
Missing the generous diversity of the Hawaiian table, I recently put together a fantasy shopping list. To make sure that I’m prepared for my next visit, whenever that may be, I sourced all the items with the help of Simeon, Kysar, and my Aunty Elaine, who swears she’ll never cross the Department of Agriculture again.
The Hawaiian version of char siu bao, or Cantonese steamed pork buns, arrived in the 1800’s, when Chinese plantation workers both ate and sold them in the fields. Over two centuries later, the Hawaiian-style buns are sweeter and bigger. (The word manapua is derived from a Hawai’ian phrase meaning “delicious pork thing.”) When Kysar is passing through O’ahu on her way back home to L.A., the historic Chinatown restaurant Char Hung Sut is on her list of musts: “They have the biggest, most fluffy, magical manapua,” she explains. “I take a box to freeze, and then I make sure I have extra on the side to eat on the flight.” My Aunty Elaine is also a fan of the baked version of char siu bao at the Honolulu restaurant Royal Kitchen.
Hawaiians have a take on Portuguese linguica, the pork sausage made with paprika, garlic, and vinegar, that’s plumper and sweeter. Best on a bed of white rice with an over-easy egg, this local comfort food is so ubiquitous in Hawai’i that you can even find it at McDonald’s. A handful of family-owned brands have their own secret recipe: My family likes to use thick Gouvea for Portuguese bean soup, a staple, and the slightly sweeter Purity for eggs and rice. When Simeon was growing up on the Island of Hawai’i, he ate homemade Portuguese sausage that his father, a hunter by trade, made from scratch; these days, his go-to is Redondo’s, while Kysar gravitates toward Hawai’ian Brand for its big emphasis on seasonings.
When the Polynesians arrived in the uninhabited islands between AD 400 and 500, they naturally brought their food culture with them. One of my favorite still-popular examples is laulau, packets of cooked pork or fish wrapped in taro leaves that steam in an underground oven, or imu, for hours until tender. I like to pick up mine at Yama’s Fish Market in Honolulu, my Aunty Elaine’s preferred spot, and I always make sure it’s frozen before I pack it in my luggage.
Li Hing Mui
Pickled plum powder, or li hing mui, has its origins in China’s Guangdong province. Today, this salty-sweet powder is a defining Hawaiian flavor. At shops called crack seed stores, you can buy it on dried fruits or candies, and practically every shave ice store in Hawai’i has some on hand in case you want to amp up your cone. My aunt, who picks up her seeds at the Crack Seed Store or Lin’s Hawai’ian Snacks in Honolulu, says, “I like the honey-lemon-ginger li hing mui. When I have a sore throat, I put it in my tea.” In Simeon’s cookbook, he uses the powder to make a margarita called the Paloma, using li hing mui instead of salt.
Tart passionfruit becomes an ethereally creamy spread called lilikoi butter, thanks to the addition of sugar, butter and eggs. I usually find this island staple, which adds a tangy punch to my breakfast toast, at mom-and-pop stands at farmers’ markets all over the islands. On my next trip, I’m planning to look for the favorite purveyor of Kysar, who grew up on Maui next to a rose farm owned by a woman named Jan Yokoyama, who eventually turned her farm into Maui Upcountry Jams and Jellies. “She grows a lot of her produce onsite and she works with local farmers,” explains Kysar, who also recommends their Maui onion butter.
Sweet Taro Rolls
Another early staple from the Polynesians, the starchy root of this plant can be prepared many ways, including porridge-like poi and sweet, sticky kulolo. I like the taste of taro in sweet bread rolls, influenced by Portuguese pao doce, and I always follow my aunt’s lead to Ani’s Bake Shop in Honolulu. The next time I need pounded poi, I’ll be getting it at Mana Ai, a company started by O’ahu-born Daniel Anthony. An outspoken advocate of food sovereignty, Anthony was instrumental in helping to legalize the commercial practice of pa‘i‘ai, the technique of hand pounding poi on stone and wood, after the Department of Health deemed it unsanitary. (Anthony made the case that the taro acts as a probiotic that inhibits bad bacteria growth.)
When I’m back on the mainland, there’s something so transporting about tasting a spoonful of honey made from the Island of Hawai‘i’s indigenous ʻōhiʻa lehua, or Pele’s flower, named after Hawai‘i’s goddess of volcanoes and fire. Simeon likes to support the small farmers selling their honey at local farmers’ markets. He recommends the small-scale, organic Wai Meli in the Island of Hawai’i’s Kona district; the company also sells its products at Mana Up, a collective of entrepreneurs helping local companies find broader platforms.
Guava Chiffon Cake
Of all my taste memories of Hawai‘i, nothing is as vivid—or thrilling—as the ethereal guava chiffon cake from Dee Lite Bakery, which closed in 2018 but was famous for its Japanese- and French-style desserts and pastries. (They were so divine that the award-winning restaurant Canlis in Seattle used to import their coconut cake.) We’d freeze whole cakes and lug them home, waiting for a special occasion before diving into the layers of guava glaze, whipped cream cheese, and light-as-air cake. “I intentionally didn’t do a chiffon cake [in my cookbook] because that memory is so specific, and I didn’t think it was going to come close enough,” says Kysar, though she does offer a simpler guava cake. My Aunty Elaine hasn’t given up: She tipped me off to Epi-Ya, a pocket-size Honolulu bakery that opened in 2019 with some of the same chefs who made those coveted Dee Lite cakes. They’re only selling pastries and breads for now, but they plan to make guava chiffon when they eventually add the oven space. My family is counting the days.
Jennifer Flowers is a writer and editor based in Seattle and New York City. Her work has appeared in AFAR Media, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Bloomberg, and the Sunday Times Travel Magazine.