The Cuisine of Hawaii's Big Island

A holiday in Hawaii’s Big Island requires a big appetite. The island takes pride in its versatile landscape and climate, as well as its colorful cultural tapestry. Every ethnic group that has come to settle on Hawaii’s Big Island has brought in its own customs and traditions, religion, language, arts, music, and food. The availability of a wide range of choices makes Hawaii’s Big Island not only the “island of adventure” but the island of endless possibilities as well. What makes the island most endearing to travelers is that it always has something to offer to suit every taste.

Over the centuries, the waves of explorers and migrant workers who have come to the island have brought with them traditional methods of cooking and ingredients unique to their homelands, turning the Big Island into one gigantic melting pot of exotic cuisines. If you want an entree of Mediterranean salad and the Vietnamese soup pho to, and a side dish of Korean kimchi, you can have all that and more on the Orchid Isle.

You can choose from a wide variety of cuisines that titillates even the most discriminating palate. Your taste buds will be wowed by the colorful gastronomic display of various Thai curries and Portuguese sausages, as well as the Hawaiian twist on the Philippine national dish of adobo, which the Filipinos have inherited from their Spanish colonizers. It usually consists of chicken or pork marinated and simmered in soy sauce, vinegar, crushed garlic, bay leaf, black peppercorn, and pineapple bits or shreds to give it a whole new Hawaiian twist. The dish alone already consists of a blend of three cultures, and if that does not whet your appetite just yet, wait until you get a whiff of fried Chinese won ton on duck sauce, and you’ll soon be salivating off your seat.

Hawaii Regional Cuisine

Despite the island’s versatility, there has not always been an authentic Hawaiian cuisine until the early 1990s. In fact, some travel writers have made snide comments in the past about Hawaiian cuisine consisting of pineapple slices placed on just about any other dish. Right then, the Big Island, as with the rest of Hawaii, had only the luau essentials, such as the Polynesian staple poi, which is made from taro (referred to in Hawaii as kalo), laulau, or a piece of pork wrapped in taro leaf, and the Pacific Island side dish lomi-lomi salmon salad, consisting mainly of fresh tomatoes, raw, salted salmon slices, Maui onions, and flakes of red hot chili peppers on crushed ice. The pulpy breadfruit (known in the island as ulu) and the succulent Kalua pig are also among the Hawaiian favorites.

Despite the luscious taste of these dishes, the predictability of the luau had Hawaii earning a bad reputation as a “paradise island but a gastronomic wasteland” to some. All that changed when a dozen of Hawaii’s most reputable chefs convened in 1991 to come up with the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine that propelled the entire Hawaiian state to international acclaim in haute cuisine.

The legendary group of Hawaii’s finest culinary geniuses was made up of Sam Choy, Roger Dikon, Mark Ellman, Amy Ferguson Ota, Beverly Gannon, Jean-Marie Josselin, George Mavrothalassitis, Peter Merriman, Philippe Padovani, Gary Strehl, Alan Wong, and Roy Yamaguchi. Through their efforts, Hawaiian Regional Cuisine came to be known for its Keahole lobster lasagna made with goat cheese from Hamakua and the Hukilau pie, whose filling is a concoction of various seafood, such as fish, shrimps, scallops, and lobster, sauteed in aromatic garlic and wine sauce, and served with tomatillo sauce and mashed potatoes. Another favorite is the herb-coated onaga, a dish of grilled snapper fish marinated in various herbs and spices, such as cilantro, garlic, ginger, sesame seeds, and Hawaiian red chili, and served with ginger-sake sauce and fried Maui onions or sauteed corn and mushrooms with sesame vinaigrette.

Eating like a local

Although Hawaii Regional Cuisine is one of the main attractions in luxury resorts, hotels, and upscale restaurants, you’ll also come across a number of unpretentious and out-of-the-way establishments serving local and regional cuisines. Eating like a local means having a rice diet. The most common rice meal is having it topped with vegetables and portions of fish or meat cooked in herbs and spices. If you’re a traveler with adventurous taste, you can have a feast of fish tacos, li hing mui (salty dried plum), and misoyaki (grilled miso), which actually refers to the food preparation method of coating tofu or fish in miso (fermented soybeans or rice malt) before cooking it.

Your mouth will absolutely water with the smell of guava-smoked lamb raised in the Kahua Ranch and at the sight of Pahua corn cakes. Hawaii’s Big Island now boasts of imaginative dishes created with locally raised livestock, as well as homegrown fruits and vegetables, which now makes Hawaii’s Big Island an authentic gourmet heaven.

Where to grab a bite

When you’re in the Kona area, make a stop at the South Kona Fruit Stand between 103 and 104 along Mamalahoa Highway. That’s where you can buy exotic fruits, such as breadfruit, cherimoya, guanabana, succulent honey bell tangelos, and Tahitian limes. If you’re feeling braver than usual, check out other types of almost unidentifiable fruits unique to Hawaii. For just the right amount of sugar boost, get a breakfast of strawberry papaya to build your energy for an entire day of exploration and adventure. These fruits come fresh from the nearby organic farm.

As you drive around, snack on macadamia nuts for which Hawaii’s Big Island is famous for. You can get a 5 ounce-package of chocolate-coated caramel macadamia nuts for $6. For lunch, grab a bite at Kona Tacos, which you’ll find nestled in the parking lot of the Lanihau Shopping Center. They’ve got fish tacos and Kalua pork burritos that are simply to die for. They come with pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa. Of course, the top choice for dessert and for fulfilling your sweet tooth cravings is the authentic Hawaiian shave ice, which you can get from Tropical Island Flavors.

If you’re in Waimea, one of the top choices is the pricey Daniel Thiebaut. With its 19th century architecture (housed on the significant Chock In Store) and French-Asian cuisine, it’s ideal to ending a day of exploring historic sites on this side of the Big Island, such as the Waimea Falls Park and Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park. They usually have great brunch deals on Sundays featuring a $16-buffet with an omelette bar, pastries, and sushi. A full meal there can go higher than $27 (although it’s well worth it), grab the opportunity and make an early reservation online.

At the capital city, Hilo, a must-go-to place is the Nihon Restaurant and Cultural Center. Located right next to the waterfront fish market, this is the perfect place to grab a bite if you’re craving for the freshest seafood. Aside from its renowned butterfish misoyaki and macadamia-nut roll, the place has the most amazing scenery: Hilo Bay and the Queen Liliuokalani Gardens, as well as Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. You can have a full course dinner at approximately $16.

Make a visit to the two-decade old Hilo Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays for a sampling of almost any tropical fruit that you can imagine, and include even those that you can’t while you’re at it. You can get pomegranates at around $2 for every pound. Try the coconut pastries, too.

Of course, a trip to Hawaii’s Big Island is not complete without having a fresh cup of Kona coffee. East of the island also has something to offer the caffeine junkie. If you drop by the Hilo Coffee Mill, you can get a brief lesson on roasting and brewing coffee, before you buy a bag or two of aromatic beans, which have been freshly roasted.

Along with macadamia nuts, it would make an authentic Big Island take-home present for your loved ones. You may also want to sample the Puna rainforest coffee and Kona peaberry coffee, although the latter costs almost twice as much as the other kinds.

What about guava wine? For $16, you can bring home a bottle of Hawaiian Guava Wine, which is among the best buys in the island. It’s a feast for the senses concocted from fermented yellow guava puree and white French Columbard grapes. You may buy that or the Symphony Mele, which has received a gold medal in 2004 at the Finger Lakes International Competition. It is made from a hybrid grape from the University of California. You can sample the wines for free at Volcano Winery, and you might be coming home with a bottle or two of both wines.

For the ultimate gastronomic extravaganza, consider having a light breakfast and eating your way around Hawaii’s Big Island. Some tourists even go with just a Java boost to start their day. There are simply too many authentic Hawaiian goodies for the food lover. With so many food choices, your only concern would be how to savor the taste of Hawaii, while still leaving enough room for more.