Guide to Local Hawaii Food: Loco Moco

Guide to Local Hawaii Food

Hawaii is the most racially diverse state in the United States. The islands are home to a melange of cultures — many residents are of Asian, Pacific Islander, Hawaiian, and European descent. This cultural melting pot has heavily influenced Hawaii’s fare, making for delicious and one-of-a-kind local food choices.

The original diet of Native Hawaiians consisted of anything they could grow, catch, or farm — like fish, pig, bananas, ulu (breadfruit), and coconuts. Taro was (and in some places still is) one of the most reliable and sacred food staples in the islands. Traditional Hawaiian dishes like poi and laulau are often served at luaus. 

Once missionaries, whalers, and immigrant plantation laborers from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines started arriving in Hawaii, the Hawaiian diet began to change. With these newcomers came the flavors and fares of their country of origin. As cultures collided and recipes were shared, augmented, and altered, “local food” was born — not a very creative name for a delicious and varied style of food that is completely unique to Hawaii.

Here are some important things to know about food in Hawaii:

Local food is made up of a cultural mix of flavors, foods, and preparations. “Hawaiian food” is something different – that is the traditional food of Native Hawaiians.

Local food incorporates some Hawaiian food, but there are other cultural influences, as well.

If you ask a local on Maui where you can get some good local food, we will direct you to a place like Zippy’s in Kahului. (Even the McDonald’s menu in Hawaii has been adjusted to include some popular local staples, like saimin.)

Pan of chow fun at a luau on Maui


Below is an overview of some of the most popular ethnic dishes that make up “local food” in Hawaii. Don’t be afraid to give some (or all) of these ono grinds (definition) a try!



  • Crack seed: preserved fruits and seeds; some are sweet, others are sour. You’ll find a crack seed section in most local grocery stores.



  • Adobo: chicken or pork cooked with vinegar and spices
  • Lumpia: fried pastry filled with vegetables and meats, or sometimes a dessert lumpia filled with sweet fruit such as banana or apple



  • Haupia: a sweet, firm custard made of coconut milk and cornstarch (consistency like gelatin); you’ll often find a tray of haupia on a luau dessert table
  • Kalua pig: the main course at most luaus; a roasted pig cooked in an imu (underground oven); very flavorful and tender
  • Laulau: pieces of pork or chicken (sometimes flavored with a little butterfish) topped with taro leaves, then wrapped in ti leaves and steamed
  • Lomi lomi salmon: diced salted salmon with tomatoes and green onions
  • Poi: pounded taro root that forms a pasty texture; many Hawaiians prefer it aged and slightly fermented
  • Poke: Hawaii’s most famous native dish; raw fish seasoned with such ingredients as soy sauce, onions, sesame oil, or seaweed


Hawaiian food at Maui luau: haupia, kalua pork, poi




  • Chicken katsu: deep-fried, breaded chicken pieces served with katsu sauce
  • Miso soup: traditional Japanese salty, savory broth soup
  • Mochi (pictured): a small cake or roll made of pounded rice, sometimes flavored or filled with other ingredients
  • Sashimi: very fresh firm raw fish, sliced thin; traditionally dipped in shoyu and/or seasoned with wasabi
  • Sushi: rolls or cakes of white rice topped or filled with various raw or cooked seafood, seaweed and vegetables
  • Tempura: seafood or vegetables dipped in a light batter and deep fried


Japanese food on Maui: sushi and katsu



  • Kalbi ribs: flavored similarly to teriyaki, but with chili pepper, sesame oil and green onions
  • Kim chee: spicy pickled cabbage (or other fruits/vegetables) flavored with such seasonings as ginger and garlic




  • Malasada: a fat, doughy deep-fried donut traditionally sprinkled with sugar and sometimes filled with flavored custard; served fresh and warm



  • Bento: a box lunch with a variety of local foods, such as seafood or ribs, noodles, sushi, and a scoop of rice
  • Loco moco: a fried hamburger patty atop a nest of rice topped with a fried egg and gravy
  • Manapua: Chinese-inspired pork-filled steamed dumpling buns
  • Plate lunch (pictured below): similar to bento, this is a plate made up of traditional favorites suchas teriyaki beef or chicken, hamburger with gravy, roast pork, or fried fish; traditionally served with one or two scoops of steamed white rice and a scoop of macaroni salad


Hawaiian Plate Lunch on Maui


  • Saimin: A Hawaii-style variation on Japanese ramen and Chinese mein—a thin-noodle soup with fish cake, veggies, and sometimes pork
  • Shave ice (pictured at bottom): ground ice, similar to a snow cone, except the ice is shaved finer in Hawaii, topped with flavored syrups, and sometimes combined with ice cream and/or other local ingredients like azuki beans
  • Shoyu: Japanese word for soy sauce; shoyu is the most common condiment for local food
  • Spam musubi: a slice of grilled Hormel Spam set atop a cake of steamed white rice, wrapped with a strip of dried seaweed. You can often find these local treats under the heating lamps at convenience stores and gas stations (yes, gas station food!)
  • Steamed white rice: a staple in the local diet, steamed white rice generally takes the place of potatoes
  • Teriyaki anything: locals use teriyaki sauce (a flavorful, savory marinade of shoyu, garlic and ginger) for pretty much everything, so you will find teriyaki beef, chicken, pork, seafood, hamburgers, and many other teriyaki dishes.


Teri Chicken plate at luau on Maui



Maui is home to many small farms, providing our island community with a wealth of freshly picked produce on a year-round basis. You’ll find some of these products in the island’s grocery stores, and they will usually be labeled as locally grown. Better still, drop by one of the many farmer’s markets that are available around the island on any given day. You’ll discover unique and exotic fruits and vegetables you’ve probably never seen before, and unusual and delicious variations on the old standards — like apple bananas (see below). Be adventurous and try some of Maui’s local farm-fresh products! Here are a few of my personal favorites:


  • Apple Bananas (pictured, still ripening on the tree): Apple bananas are highly prized as a special treat in Hawaii! These bananas are small, compact, and much firmer and sweeter than other banana varieties (thus the name “apple banana”). 


  • Sunrise Papaya: Sometimes called “Strawberry Papaya,” this variety of papaya has dark orange (almost red) flesh and is very sweet when fully ripe. You’ll find these fresh-off-the-farm from Kumu Farms at Maui Tropical Plantation’s Country Market store. Also available at some grocery stores around the island in limited supply.


  • Maui Gold Pineapple: This is an extra-sweet low-acid variety of pineapple grown in Hali’imaile (just below Makawao). Look for Maui Golds in local stores, or better yet, visit the pineapple fields yourself and take the tour. Very interesting — and you’ll get to eat some pineapple fresh out of the field!


  • Kula Strawberries: Lush, delicious, sun-ripened strawberries grown in Upcountry Maui. You’ll often find these in local grocery stores. Or you can visit Kula Country Farms and pick your own strawberries. You can’t get fresher than that!


  • Maui Onions: Grown only in upcountry Maui on the slopes of Mount Haleakala, this is a sweet onion variety, mild and delicious. Many different farmers grow these onions, but to be a true “Maui Onion” it must be grown in upcountry Maui. Sometimes these are referred to as “Kula-grown” onions. (Kula is an upcountry region.)


Tropical fruits and vegetables found on Maui


Enjoy eating your way through Maui!



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Happy Travels!


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