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9 Can't-Miss Culinary Experiences in Hawaii

The Best Food in Hawaii

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When you're enjoying Hawaii's best food, you'll wonder: who says Hawaii is all about relaxing on the beach? With so much that's wonderful to eat and drink on these islands, it's easy to create a jam-packed foodie itinerary.

The first Hawaiian settlers brought food and cooking techniques with them from Polynesia, while Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese immigrants have since each contributed their own culinary sensibilities. The result? A unique fusion of flavors that's truly ono -- that's Hawaiian for delicious.

Food Tours in the Hawaiian Islands:

Hawaii Food Photos:

1. Sample Taro, Guava, Avocado and More at a Farm Market

Photo of Kapiolani Farmer's Market
Shoppers flock to Kapiolani Farmer's Market. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner

Farm markets are a great place to get your bearings on Hawaiian cuisine. The state's premier market, Kapiolani Farmer’s Market, is held each Saturday morning on the grounds of Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu. (4303 Diamond Head Road.) Honolulu is on the island of Oahu, which means Oahu's farms are best represented here, although you'll definitely find vendors representing the other Hawaiian islands as well. Each island has a specialty: Maui is known for its onions and its lavender, Kauai for its coffee, guava, taro, and red-fleshed sunrise papayas, the Big Island for its macadamia nuts, hearts of palm and breadfruit. Looking for farm markets on the other islands? The Hawaii Department of Agriculture maintains an up-to-date list.

2. Tour Honolulu’s Holes-in-the-Wall

Liliah Bakery. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner
While Honolulu and certain parts of Maui and the Big Island can feel a bit like they’re part of California mall-sprawl, there are a great many fantastic mom 'n pop restaurants and small food shops to explore. If you’re short on time in Oahu, try the “Hole in the Wall” tour, offered by Hawaii Food Tours. This four-hour tour takes you to some of Honolulu’s tiny-but-terrific local faves, including Liliha Bakery. (515 N. Kuakini Street, (808) 531-1651.) Liliha is best known for its cocoa puffs, which are cream-filled pastries, and malasadas, which are Portuguese donuts. Try the maladadas filled with azuki bean paste.

3. Try a Presidential Plate Lunch

Photo of Rainbow Drive-In in Honolulu, a great place to try a Hawaiian "plate lunch".
A great place to try a Hawaiian "plate lunch" in Honolulu. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner
When President Obama returned to his native Hawaii, he made it a point to grab a Hawaiian specialty called “plate lunch”, which consists of two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad (locals call it “mac salad”,) and an entrée, usually meat or seafood. The plate lunch concept has its roots in the Japanese bento box, so you can get Japanese-inspired dishes with your plate lunch, like beef teriyaki. Or, choose more Hawaiian specialties, like kalua pork -- the meat is rubbed with salt, wrapped in ti leaves, and slow-cooked. You can find plate lunches all over Hawaii, but President Obama frequents Rainbow Drive-In, which is near Waikiki Beach. (3308 Kanaina Ave, (808) 737-0177.)

4. Wander in Honolulu's Chinatown

Produce on sale at Maunakea Market in Chinatown. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner

Honolulu’s “Chinatown” is actually more of a blend of all of the different Asian cultures represented in Hawaii: Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Japanese, Thai, Filipino and Korean. Here you’ll find markets, restaurants, specialty shops, bakeries and fantastic dim sum. If you’ve visited other U.S. Chinatowns, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how relaxed and calm Honolulu’s is.

5. Cool off with Shave Ice

Tom's Mini-Mart on Maui flavors its shave ice with house-made syrup.
Tom's Mini-Mart on Maui flavors its shave ice with house-made syrup. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner.
Nothing slacks tropical heat quite like "shave ice", a dessert which is (you guessed it!) shaved ice, drenched in flavored sweet syrup. What sets Hawaiian shave ice apart from other snow-cones that you might have had elsewhere is what you add to it. Locals start with a base of ice cream, add the shaved ice and syrup, top that with azuki beans, then pour on condensed milk and finally sprinkle it all with li hing mui, which is a tangy powder made from salty dried plums. Try it at Waiola Bakery & Shave Ice in Honolulu, or at Tom's Mini-Mart in Wailuku, Maui.

6. Sink Your Teeth into a Pastry

Coconut manju from Home Made Bakery in Maui. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner
Hawaiians love their bakeries, and the islands are dotted with fantastic small ones. On Maui, there’s Home Made Bakery, where the must-try is manju, a dense Japanese pastry made with buckwheat flour, which can be filled with coconut, papaya and even lima beans. (1005 Lower Main Street, Wailuku, (808) 244-7015. Or 395 Dairy Road, Kahului, (808) 877-8779.) On the Big Island, there’s Two Ladies’ Kitchen, (274 Kilauea Ave, Hilo, (808) 961-4766) famous for their mochi, a rice paste confection that can be stuffed with strawberries.

7. Eat Some Cheese at Surfing Goat Dairy

A rainbow over Surfing Goat Dairy in Maui. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner
Many of Hawaii’s farms welcome visitors, and one of the best is Surfing Goat Dairy, on Maui. (3651 Omaopio Road, Kula, (808) 878-2870.) This goat farm is on the slopes of the Haleakala Volcano, and has won many national awards for its cheese. Be sure to sample Purple Rain chevre flavored with Maui-grown lavender, and Mac Goat Nut feta, which is flavored with smoked local macadamia nut shells. You can tour the farm, grab a goat cheese snack, and if you call ahead, you can even help out with the evening chores.

8. Check out a Brewery or a Food Factory

Picture of entrance to Mauna Loa Factory Visitor's Center
Entrance to the Mauna Loa Factory Visitor's Center. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner
Hawaii is home to many food-related factories you can tour. For instance, the island brews excellent beer, and Kona Brewing Company, on the Big Island, is one of its major breweries. Tour Kona's headquarters and learn how it produces its full range of beer, from light Longboard Island Lager to dark Pipeline Porter, made with coffee grown nearby. (Tours are Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.) Be sure to stop by the pub to sample their draft-only products, including the Hula Hefeweizen, which has both banana and herbal flavors. (75-5629 Kuakini Highway, Kailua-Kona, (808) 334-2739.) Or visit Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory and Visitor's Center, on the Hilo side of the Big Island.

9. Attend a Culinary Event

Hawaii hosts many excellent culinary events throughout the year, a great way to get to know island cuisine and local foodies. Find more info about food and wine events here.

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