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To the non-native, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Hawaii is an island state primed for a splendid vacation—with a warm tropical climate, natural scenery, oceanic vistas and sandy beaches. However, to truly experience Hawaii at its best, you really should consider the taste of the Aloha State’s cuisine. Like the local culture and history, the food here is diverse, with a blend of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Polynesian, and European influences all making their way to the dinner table. Here are some of the foods you absolutely have to try when you visit Hawaii.

Poi

There is perhaps no other Polynesian food on this list more significant than this thick paste made from the tubers of the taro plant. Poi is the primary staple food of Polynesia and it came to Hawaii with the first Polynesian settlers. Primarily eaten withKalua pua’a, or roast pork, It is made by steaming and baking the starchy taro tubers, then pounding them while adding water to the mixture. The result is a purplish, viscous liquid that can be eaten immediately as a fresh and sweet pudding or left longer to acquire more fermentation and a more sour taste.

Laulau

In the Polynesian region, people eat certain types of meat wrapped in layers of taro leaves. One such dish, laulau, is native to Hawaii, and usually consists of pork served steaming hot, nestled in the wide green leaves. The meat is placed in the center of a packet of leaves, then cooked in an underground pit over hot rocks or steamed in a pot on a stove. The resulting meat is tender and juicy, while the leaves have a spinach-like consistency. Typically eaten during lunchtime, laulau is usually served with rice and macaroni salad. For a chance to taste this traditional Hawaiian dish and enjoy a gorgeous view at the same time, locals will tell you to head to Super J’s for the best laulau on the Big Island.

Kalua Pig

In Hawaii, kalua is a traditional way of cooking that involves the use of an underground oven called an imu. The word is also used to describe food cooked in this manner. One of the more popular dishes in Hawaii among locals and visitors alike is kalua pig, a pork dish that is prepared by slow-roasting the meat to make it tender and give it a smoky taste.

Saimin

Not Polynesian strictly speaking, the origin of saimin—a portmanteau of the words sai (thin) and min (noodle)—is traced to China. Immigrants from that country, arriving as sugarcane and pineapple plantation laborers, brought the thin noodles to Hawaii. Over time, laborers from other countries added their own twists to the dish: Filipinos with their green onions, Portuguese with their sausage, Koreans with cabbage used to make kimchi, and the Hawaiians themselves with the addition of chicken eggs. Today, saimin is recognized as one of the land’s dishes that is considered truly native to Hawaii. Commonly eaten during the mild winters, saimin often incorporates other ingredients, such as SPAM, roast pork, and bright pink fish cake.

SPAM Musubi

Speaking of SPAM—that notorious brand of canned, precooked meat—it is the key ingredient of a popular snack and lunch food in Hawaii. Called SPAM musubi, it comprises a slice of grilled SPAM joined to a block of rice with a wrap of dried nori seaweed—similar to Japanese omusubi (thus the similarity of the name). Indeed, the idea came from Japanese field workers. Tasty and inexpensive, SPAM musubi is prevalent at cash registers in groceries and convenience stores throughout Hawaii.
The next time you visit Hawaii, make sure to taste some of the amazing local cuisine. Try these Polynesian and local specialties—you won’t be disappointed!

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