We’re not saying Hawaii’s food culture is necessarily better than the rest of the 49 states when it comes to destinations with rich food cultures that adequately tantalize your tastebuds, but we are saying Hawaii’s food culture is probably, most likely, definitely, absolutely, one hundred percent the coolest.
This month, we explore what makes the Aloha State’s food culture so unique, and why Maui – if it isn’t already – should hang somewhere at, or at least somewhere near the top, of your list for food-fueled travel.
A Look Into Hawaii’s Food Culture
Let’s travel back a moment. Settlers from Polynesia arrived in the Hawaiian Islands between 300-700 AD in dugout canoes, bringing edible plants, tools, animals and other useful items along with them to ensure a secure voyage and post-arrival life. Around approximately the year 1000, Tahitians joined the existing Polynesian population, who fished, farmed, harvested bird eggs and roasted food in underground ovens – called imu – for centuries in the surrounding marine-rich waters and fertile, volcanic land. Along with poi, dishes like kulolo, laulau, poke and kalua pig became vastly popular.
Following Captain Cook’s arrival on the Big Island in 1778, King Kamehameha deemed Lahaina as the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom and united the Islands under his rule in 1810. After his death in 1819, Protestant missionaries began to settle in the Hawaiian Islands, along with a growing whaling population of sailors who utilized Hawaii’s convenient port locations.
Multi-Cultural Cuisine Influences
With their arrival came new foods, cuisine styles, and pineapple and sugarcane plantations, along with a multi-cultural influx of workers primarily from Portugal, Korea, Japan, China, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, among others. Combining their respective cultural cuisines, these international communities began to form what would become Hawaiian-style cuisine over several decades, introducing common dishes to the local-style cuisine still prevalent today.
Additionally, Spanish vaqueros began arriving in the 1830s, introducing spices such as black pepper, chilies, and an essential knowledge of cattle herding to the mix. Beginning in the 1850s, a growing Chinese population introduced items like manapua and saimin, and rice farming was adopted on previously-flourishing taro farms. In the mid 1880s, a huge population of Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii, introducing items like musubi, bento, katsu, kakigori (shave ice) and more to the local cuisine.
Communities drawing on their respective cuisines invented what we now refer to as the ‘plate lunch,’ as well as ultra-popular dishes like loco moco, musubi and more. During World War II, SPAM was formally adopted as a staple of the diet, primarily because it did not need to be refrigerated and held a longer-than-average shelf life.
After Hawaii’s official statehood in 1959, hundreds of thousands of tourists began arriving in the Islands, creating the landscape of what would eventually dominate the dollar in Hawaii. In 1992, twelve local chefs created a non-profit and trademarked ‘Hawaii Regional Cuisine’ for the first time ever, designating it as ‘local-style food using fresh ingredients that grow on the islands’ as a way to connect farmers, ranchers and fisherman with local chefs to highlight its unique cultural influences and possibilities within the realm of recognized worldly cuisine.
Modern Food Culture
One of the best things about Hawaiian cuisine is that while it is constantly evolving with the many diverse, talented, and innovative local chefs and farmers willing to push the boundaries of what ‘Hawaiian-style’ cuisine means, it typically draws from its rich cultural past more than it reinvents what it means to ‘eat local.’
While there are endless opportunities for unique food experiences on Maui, we believe in hearing the stories directly from the people largely influencing its food, farm and beverage culture themselves. Our four unique Maui Craft Tours take you to the source of Maui’s coolest crafters and creators for a behind-the-scenes look at what coffee roasting, brewing, distilling, winemaking, farming and more really look like in the land of aloha.
Mahalo for reading, and we hope you’ll join us on your next foodie venture to Maui to learn more about one of the world’s coolest F&B destinations with the help of our experienced, knowledgeable and friendly local guides. Aloha!