The plate lunch (Hawaiian: pā mea ʻai[a]) is a syncretic menu item that is a quintessential part of the cuisine of Hawaii, roughly analogous to a Southern U.S. meat-and-threes plate. However, the inclusion of pan-Asian ingredients makes the plate lunch unique to Hawaii. Standard plate lunches consist of two scoops of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and a main entrée. A plate lunch with more than one entrée is often called a mixed plate. Many plate lunch outlets also sell "mini-plates" which come with the same entrées in smaller portions.
According to University of Hawaii professor, Jon Okamura, the plate lunch likely grew out of the Japanese bento because they "were take away kinds of eating and certainly the plate lunch continues that tradition". Although the exact origin of the Hawaiian plate lunch is disputed, it goes back to the 1880s when plantation workers were in high demand by the fruit and sugar companies. Laborers were brought from around the world, including from China, Japan, Portugal, and the Philippines, who would eat "leftover rice and a lot of things like canned meat or teriyaki or cold meat or maybe scrambled eggs or pickles, and almost no salad or vegetable," according to The Honolulu Advertiser's former food editor, Ms. Kaui Philpotts. Mayonnaise macaroni and gravy for the meat were later added.
As the days of the plantations came to an end, the plate lunches started being served by lunch wagons to construction workers and day laborers. Later, local "holes in the wall and other stand-alone plate lunch restaurants" began popping up and then franchises for the plate lunch. Eventually plate lunch franchises made their way to the mainland in the U.S. beginning with L&L Drive-Inn coming to California in 1999. At that time, one of the founders of L&L, Eddie Flores, rebranded the restaurant chain as L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. Flores explained his reasoning for renaming the franchise, "When we went to the mainland, the name 'Hawaiian' is a draw, because everyone just fantasized, everyone wants to come to Hawaii". From that point on, plate lunches became known to mainland America as Hawaiian Barbecue.
There are a number of popular entrées that come with plate lunches, mostly of Asian influence or origin. Notably from Japanese origin is chicken katsu, fried boneless chicken breaded with Japanese bread crumbs, and beef teriyaki (often shortened to "teri beef"). A common side-dish with plate lunches is fried noodles, often made of either chow mein noodles or sometimes saimin noodles.
A notably American facet of the plate lunch is the hamburger steak, a hamburger patty smothered with brown gravy and placed on top of rice. When a fried sunny side up egg is added onto hamburger steak, it becomes a Loco Moco.
In many plate lunch restaurants, you'll find entrées of Hawaiian origin as well, like kalua pork (also called "kalua pig") and lau lau. Some side dishes of Hawaiian origin include lomi salmon (also called "lomi-lomi salmon") and haupia (a coconut dessert).
In many local Korean restaurants, many Korean entrées are available with plate lunches, including kalbi and meat jun. Some side dishes include taegu, and namul, a dish made of seasoned soybean sprouts.
- ^a The dish is simply called "plate lunch" by Hawaiʻi locals, and is rarely, if ever, referred to by its Hawaiian name.
- Wight, Kahikāhealani, Wight. (2005). Illustrated Hawaiian Dictionary. p.367. ISBN 1-57306-239-1
- "Origins of Plate Lunch". Honolulu, Hawaii: KHNL. 2002-11-27. Retrieved 2008-11-12.
- [Jennifer] (November 12, 2008), "Carbo-Loading, Hawaiian Style", The New York Times (New York, NY): D1 New York edition, retrieved 2009-11-01
- "L&L Hawaiian Barbecue · L&L Drive-Inn - About Us". Honolulu, HI. Retrieved 2009-11-01.