Native cuisine of Hawaii

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A lava rock poi pounder dated from the 18th century or earlier. (From the Honolulu Museum of Art's collection)
A Hawaiian poi dealer. Photograph by Menzies Dickson dated to between 1860 and 1870
Pouding taro into poi. Taro plants can be seen growing in the background below the banana leaves

Native Hawaiian cuisine is based on the traditional Hawaiian foods that predate contact with Europeans and immigration from East and Southeast Asia. The earliest Polynesian seafarers are believed to have arrived on the Hawaiian Islands in 300–500 AD.[a] Few edible plants were indigenous to Hawaiʻi aside from a few ferns and fruits that grew at higher elevations. Various food-producing plants were introduced to the island by migrating Polynesian peoples.

Botanists and archaeologists believe that these voyagers introduced anywhere from 27 to more than 30 plants to the islands, mainly for food.[1] The most important of them was taro.[2] For centuries, taro—and the poi made from it—was the main staple of the Hawaiian diet, and it is still much loved. ʻUala (sweet potatoes) and yams were also planted. The Marquesans, the first settlers from Polynesia, brought ʻulu (breadfruit) and the Tahitians later introduced the baking banana. Settlers from Polynesia also brought coconuts and sugarcane.[3] ʻAwa (Piper methysticum, kava) is also a traditional food among Hawaiians. Breadfruit, sweet potato, kava, and heʻe (octopus) are associated with the four major Hawaiian gods: Kāne, , Lono and Kanaloa.[4]

Fish, shellfish, and limu are abundant in Hawai’i.[1] Flightless birds were easy to catch and eggs from nests were also eaten.[1] Most Pacific islands had no meat animals except bats and lizards.[5]

Ancient Polynesians sailed the Pacific with pigs, chickens, and Polynesian dogs, and introduced them to the islands.[5] Pigs were raised for religious sacrifice, and the meat was offered at altars, some of which was consumed by priests and the rest eaten in a mass celebration.[5] The early Hawaiian diet was diverse, and may have included as many as 130 different types of seafood and 230 types of sweet potatoes.[6] Some species of land and sea birds were consumed into extinction.[7]

Sea salt was a common condiment in ancient Hawaiʻi.[8] Inamona is a traditional relish or condiment often accompanied meals and is made of roasted and mashed kukui nutmeats, and sea salt. It sometimes mixed with edible seaweed.[8]

Culinary and cultural traditions[edit]

Hāpuʻu ʻiʻi, Hawaiian tree fern (Cibotium menziesii) at Mt. Kaʻala, Oʻahu
Hoʻokupu (gifts or offerings) presented on King Kalākaua's 50th birthday November 16, 1886, at the ʻIolani Palace Throne Room. Honolulu, Hawai‘i. The offerings are several hundred bowls of poi

Early Polynesian settlers brought along with them clothing, plants and livestock and established settlements along the coasts and larger valleys. Upon their arrival, the settlers grew kalo (taro), maiʻa (banana), niu (coconut), and ʻulu (breadfruit). Meats were eaten less often than fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Some did import and raise puaʻa (pork), moa (chicken), and ʻīlio (poi dog). Popular condiments included paʻakai (salt), ground kukui nut, limu (seaweed), and ko (sugarcane) which was used as both a sweet and a medicine.[9] The non-native species may have caused various birds, plants and land snails to go extinct.[10] Estuaries were adapted to fishing ponds (aquaculture). Irrigation work was also used to farm taro.[11]

Men did all of the cooking, and food for women was cooked in a separate imu; afterwards men and women ate meals separately per the ancient kapu (taboo) of separating the genders for meals.[b] This kapu was abolished in 1819 at the death of Kamehameha I by his wife Ka'ahumanu.[12] The ancient practice of cooking with the imu continues for special occasions[13] and is popular with tourists.

Hāpuʻu ʻiʻi, Hawaiian tree fern (Cibotium menziesii) is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and the uncoiled fronds (fiddles) are eaten boiled. The starchy core of the ferns was considered a famine food or used as pig feed. It was prepared by peeling the young fronds or placing the entire trunk with the starchy center in an ʻimu or volcanic steam vents. A saying was "He hāpuʻu ka ʻai he ai make" (If the hāpuʻu is the food, it is the food of death).

Thespesia populnea wood was used to make food bowls.

Cyanea angustifolia was eaten in times of food scarcity. It and the now endangered Cyanea platyphylla are known in Hawaiian as haha.

There is no fighting when eating from a bowl of poi. It is shared and is connected to the concept because Hāloa (Taro), the first-born son of the parents who begat the human race. Hawaiians identify strongly with kalo/taro, so much so that the Hawaiian term for family, ʻohana, is derived from the word ʻohā, the shoot or sucker which grows from the kalo corm. As young shoots grow from the corm, so people too grow from their family.[14]

Fish, seafood, and seaweed[edit]

Fishing, harvesting other seafood and seaweed have been an important part of Native Hawaiian cuisine.[15] Limpets, opihi, are also a traditional part of the Hawaiian diet picked off reefs at low tide.[16]


Cordyline fruticosa plant, known as Ti, with fruit
Hala, the fruit of the Pandanus tectorius tree


  • Kalua, pig cooked underground in an imu.[19]
  • Poi (pronounced po-ee) is made from cooked, mashed, and sometimes lightly fermented taro. It is the starch staple of the native Hawaiian diet.[20]
  • Laulau is made with beef, pork, or chicken and salted butterfish wrapped in taro leaves and then ti leaves. It was traditionally prepared in an imu.[20]
  • Poke (pronounced po-keh) is a raw marinated fish or other seafood salad (such as ahi poke or octopus poke). It is made with sea salt, seaweed, kukui nut oil and in more recent times with soy sauce and sesame oil.[20]
  • Squid luau (pronounced Loo-ow) is made with coconut milk cooked with taro leaves in a pot. It has a creamy consistency. Chicken is sometimes substituted for the squid.[20]
  • Haupia (pronounced how-pee-ah) is a flan like dessert made with coconut milk and ground arrowroot. Cornstarch has become a widespread substitute for the arrowroot.[20]
  • Ko'ele palau (pronounced ko-ele pa-lao) is a desert made from cooked sweet potato mashed and mixed with coconut milk.[20]
  • Kulolo (pronounced ku-lo-lo) is a pudding dessert made from grated taro corm and coconut milk that's baked in an imu, having a fudge-like consistency.[20]
A bowl of poi showing its viscous consistency
An 1899 photo of a man making poi
Hawaiians eating poi in a photo by Menzies Dickson circa 1870. Dickson was a pioneering photographer on the islands who captured some of the earliest images of Hawaiian people

Festivals and special occasions[edit]

On important occasions, a traditional ʻahaʻaina feast was held. When a woman was to have her first child, her husband started raising a pig for the ʻahaʻaina mawaewae feast that was celebrated for the birth of a child. Besides the pig, mullet, shrimp, crab, seaweed, and taro leaves were required for the feast.[21] The modern name for such feasts, lūʻau, was not used until 1856, replacing the Hawaiian words ʻahaʻaina and pāʻina.[22] The name lūʻau came from the name of a food always served at a ʻahaʻaina, young taro tops baked with coconut milk and chicken or octopus.

Pigs and dogs were killed by strangulation or by holding their nostrils shut in order to conserve the animal's blood.[23] Meat was prepared by flattening out the whole eviscerated animal and broiling it over hot coals, or it was spitted on sticks.[23] Large pieces of meat, such as fowl, pigs and dogs, would be typically cooked in earth ovens, or spitted over a fire during ceremonial feasts.[23][24] Hawaiian earth ovens, known as an imu, combine roasting and steaming in a method called kālua. A pit is dug into earth and lined with volcanic rocks and other rocks that do not split when heated to a high temperature, such as granite.[25] A fire is built with embers, and when the rocks are glowing hot, the embers are removed and the foods wrapped in ti, ginger or banana leaves are put into the pit, covered with wet leaves, mats and a layer of earth. Water may be added through a bamboo tube to create steam. The intense heat from the hot rocks cooked food thoroughly — the quantity of food for several days could be cooked at once, taken out and eaten as needed, and the cover replaced to keep the remainder warm.[8] Sweet potatoes, taro, breadfruit and other vegetables were cooked in the imu, as well as fish. Saltwater eel was salted and dried before being put into the imu.[26] Chickens, pigs and dogs were put into the imu with hot rocks inserted in the abdominal cavities.[8]

Procession offering gifts to Lono during the hoʻokupu protocol presentation of a Makahiki festival

Paʻina is the Hawaiian word for a meal and can also be used to refer to a party or feast. One tradition that includes paʻina is the four-month-long Makahiki ancient Hawaiian New Year festival in honor of the god Lono (referred to as the sweet potato god) of the Hawaiian religion. Makahiki includes a first phase of spiritual cleansing and making hoʻokupu offerings to the gods. The Konohiki, a class of royalty that at this time of year provided the service of tax collector, collected agricultural and aquacultural products such as pigs, taro, sweet potatoes, dry fish, kapa and mats. Some offerings were in the form of forest products such as feathers. The Hawaiian people had no money or other similar medium of exchange. The goods were offered on the altars of Lono at heiau - temples - in each district around the island. Offerings also were made at the ahu, stone altars set up at the boundary lines of each community. All war was outlawed to allow unimpeded passage of the image of Lono. The festival proceeded in a clockwise circle around the island as the image of Lono (Akua Loa, a long pole with a strip of tapa and other embellishments attached) was carried by the priests. At each ahupuaʻa (each community also is called an ahupuaʻa) the caretakers of that community presented hoʻokupu to the Lono image, a fertility god who caused things to grow and who gave plenty and prosperity to the islands. The second phase of celebration includes: hula dancing, of sports (boxing, wrestling, Hawaiian lava sledding, javelin marksmanship, bowling, surfing, canoe races, relays, and swimming), of singing and of feasting.[27] In the third phase, the waʻa ʻauhau — tax canoe — was loaded with hoʻokupu and taken out to sea where it was set adrift as a gift to Lono.[28] At the end of the Makahiki festival, the chief would go off shore in a canoe. When he came back in he stepped on shore and a group of warriors threw spears at him. He had to deflect or parry the spears to prove his worthiness to continue to rule.

Legacy of traditional Hawaiian cuisine[edit]

Native Hawaiian dishes have evolved and been integrated into contemporary fusion cuisine.[29] Apart from lūʻau for tourists, native Hawaiian cuisine is less common than other ethnic cuisine in parts of Hawaii, but restaurants such as Helena's Hawaiian Food and Ono Hawaiian Foods specialize in traditional Hawaiian food.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Laudan 1996, p. 216.
  2. ^ Nenes 2007, p. 478.
  3. ^ Nenes 2008, p. 479
  4. ^ Native Food, Native Stories Archived 2014-05-17 at January 24, 2012 Oiwi TV
  5. ^ a b c Brennan 2000, pp. 135–138.
  6. ^ Adams 2006, pp. 90–92.
  7. ^ Brennan 2000, p. 139.
  8. ^ a b c d Kane 1998, p. 53.
  9. ^ Adams, 2006, pp. 90–92
  10. ^ Burney, Back to the Future in the Caves of Kaua'i. pp. 83
  11. ^ Kirch, Hawaiki, Ancestral Polynesia. pp. 130-131
  12. ^ John F. McDermott; Wen-Shing Tseng; Thomas W. Maretzki (1 January 1980). People and Cultures of Hawaii: A Psychocultural Profile. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 8–. ISBN 978-0-8248-0706-1.
  13. ^ Corum 2000, p. 3
  14. ^ Taro: Hawai'i' Roots Archived 2012-07-28 at
  15. ^ Archived 2016-04-26 at the Wayback Machine Native Use of Fish in Hawaii by Margaret Titcomb University of Hawaii Press, 1972 - History - 175 pages
  16. ^ a b Archived 2016-05-05 at the Wayback Machine Honolulu, Waikiki and O'Ahu by Sara Benson, Scott Kennedy
  17. ^ Best, Elsdon (1931). "Maori agriculture". Journal of the Polynesian Society. 40: 1–22. Archived from the original on 2016-02-06. Retrieved 2014-05-17.
  18. ^ "Cordyline", The International Tropical Foliage & Garden Society Inc. Archived 2012-05-29 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "Traditional Hawaiian Food: Eat These 7 Massively Tasty Dishes". Archived from the original on 2014-05-18. Retrieved 2014-05-17.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Authentic Hawaiian foods Archived 2014-05-18 at the Wayback Machine Culary Arts 360
  21. ^ Choy & Cook 2003, pp. 12–13.
  22. ^ Pukui & Elbert 1986, pp. 214.
  23. ^ a b c Schwabe 1979, p. 171.
  24. ^ Brennan 2000, pp. 3–5.
  25. ^ Choy & Cook 2003, p. 16.
  26. ^ Brennan 2000, pp. 271–273.
  27. ^ "Hoʻihoʻi Kulana Wahi pana - Restoring Sacred Places" (PDF). Kamehameha Investment Corporation. 2008. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 12, 2010. Retrieved September 21, 2010.
  28. ^ Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel Hoyt Elbert (2003). "lookup of waʻa ʻauhau". in Hawaiian Dictionary. Ulukau, the Hawaiian Electronic Library, University of Hawaii Press. Retrieved September 21, 2010.
  29. ^ Native America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia Archived 2016-05-22 at the Wayback Machine, Volume 1 edited by Daniel S. Murphree page 271


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