By Léo Azambuja
Modern local Hawaiian cuisine is a combination of early Hawaiian foods and dishes from immigrants of different ethnicities who came to Hawai‘i in the last two centuries, especially during the sugar plantation days.
There are countless types of food establishments on Kaua‘i where you can enjoy local foods. The rule of thumb for the best places to find local food is the smaller ma-and-pa types of restaurants. But Kaua‘i’s upscale restaurants and resorts also offer many dishes inspired by local cuisine.
Saimin, an original Chinese noodle soup, took a Hawaiian flair during the sugar plantation era in the 19th century. Here, it added ingredients from the Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Portuguese and Hawaiians to become Hawai‘i’s first fast food dish.
Serving the public since 1952, Hamura Saimin in Lihu‘e has become an icon among local food restaurants. It is always crowded with locals and visitors.
“We really take pride in what we serve. There’s real goodness in what you’re getting,” said Lori Tanigawa, the current president of Hamura Saimin. She has been working at Hamura since she was 9 years old. Her grandmother, Aiko Hamura, was the one who started the business. But it took her much trial and error, more than three renditions to finally get it going.
“I don’t know how the word is getting out, but a lot of people know about this place, which is amazing, and we don’t advertise. We never advertise,” said Tanigawa, describing Hamura Saimin as “kinda like a whole in the wall” with no ambiance and very local. Many patrons know all the workers and are considered part of the family.
“My workers, they see them, they already know what they want, without talking,” Tanigawa said of her regular customers.
The family’s fourth generation, Tanigawa’s daughters and nephews, have been working at Hamura for many years. Tanigawa said she hopes they will take over the business one day, but shrugs and says, “You can never tell them what to do.”
Many visitors to Hawai‘i arrive here with a checklist that inevitably includes attending a lūʻau. The quintessential tourist activity on the Islands, lūʻau are actually quite accurate when it comes down to basic local foods: poi, kalua pig, lomi-lomi salmon, sweet potato, sticky rice and haupia.
Poi is a sour and watery paste made from taro, a plant that is the heart and soul of early Hawaiian society and religion. Many say you have to acquire a taste for it. But once you do, you’re hooked. It can be eaten plain or mixed with other local dishes.
The kalua pig is prepared almost the same way as it was hundreds of years ago — baked underground. Traditionally, a whole pig is cooked for several hours in a deep pit, or imu, lined with heated lava rocks and banana or ti leaves, and then covered with more leaves. In modern lūʻau, it is usually served mixed with cabbage.
Lomi lomi salmon is a type of ceviche made with salmon. Because of its tingly, vinegary taste, it pairs good with poi. Lomi lomi salmon is unique in a sense that despite being created after contact with the West — there’s no salmon in Hawai‘i — it was brought to Hawai‘i by Hawaiians themselves.
More than 150 years ago, many Hawaiians left for seasonal work in the Pacific Northwest. A large number settled there, especially in Canada, where they were treated as equals by the government. It is believed Hawaiians living there created lomi lomi salmon and brought it back to the Islands.
The ‘uala, or sweet potato, is sweet and has a deep purple hue. But what’s special about it, is that from the nearly 30 plants brought to Hawai‘i by early Polynesian settlers, it is the only one whose genetic make-up does not trace back to Southeast Asia. It is phonetically and genetically linked to South America, suggesting that at one point, Hawaiians and indigenous South Americans may have connected.
The haupia is a pudding-like dessert traditionally made with coconut and pia, or arrowroot. Another dessert made by early Hawaiians is the kūlolo, a baked mixture of grated taro and coconut cream. Early Hawaiians considered kūlolo a delicacy.
If you are lucky to come across ‘opihi, try it. Many ‘opihi pickers have lost their lives trying to pry the shells of these small limpets stuck in lava rocks dotting the coastline. It is that good; to die for.
When rice is cooked properly here in Hawai‘i, it’s called “sticky rice.” You get the idea. This is one of the few, if not the only, states in the country that serves rice for breakfast. With eggs and Portuguese sausage, it’s a local favorite.
Aside from the sausage, the sweet bread and the bean soup, one of the greatest culinary contributions from Portuguese immigrants to Hawai‘i is the malasada. It’s a deep-fried dough ball rolled in sugar.
The lau lau is made of taro leaves and meat — chicken, fish, pork or beef. Everything is wrapped with a ti leaf, which is tied at the top with a string and then steamed.
The loco moco is a rice bowl topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and gravy. Try it with two eggs.
The manapua came from Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. The name comes from mea ono (cake or pastry) and pua‘a (pork). It started out as a baked bun filled with pork. Today, manapuas also have curry chicken, kalua pig, sweet potato, hot dogs and other fillings.
The musubi is an iconic food of Hawai‘i. Historians say the origins of spam musubi goes back to Japanese-Americans locked up in internment camps on the Mainland during World War II. They would place spam over rice in baking pans, and cut it to serve. On Kaua‘i, the late Barbara Funamura laid claims to inventing the spam musubi in the 1980s in her Joni Hana Restaurant in Lihu‘e. There’s also the story of a Japanese woman on O‘ahu, Mitsuko Kaneshiro, who is said to have made spam musubi for her children and then started selling it in the 1980s.
Another tasty snack is ahi poke, which is made with cubed ahi, or tuna, mixed with limu, ʻinamona, green onions and other spices. It can also have chili peppers, hot sauce, wasabi or fish eggs. Ahi is the most popular kind, but many establishments also offer poke made with salmon, shrimp, octopus, lobster, squid, scallops and other fish. Of all the establishments selling poke on the island, the iconic Ishihara Market in Waimea stands out as one of the best.
The shave ice may have originated in Japan, but it gained popularity in Hawai‘i during the plantation days, and today it is one of the most iconic local desserts. It’s simply a cone of shaved ice topped with flavored syrups. But it can also hide an ice cream scoop under the ice and have condensed milk drizzled over the top for a sweeter taste.
Like many local establishments that have been around for a while, Hamura Saimin represents the Hawai‘i that locals are used to, a place where the real Hawai‘i happens on a daily basis.
“We try to keep the old style here because that is how we are, because we are referred to as the local old style,” Tanigawa said. “It’s been like that for a long time.”