Famous food writer M.F.K. Fisher once wrote, “First we eat, then we do everything else.” It’s a profoundly true quote. Our entire lives are built upon what we put into our mouths. So it makes sense to be at least a little aware of exactly what we’re putting in there. As someone who loves both travel and access to healthy food, I get excited about destinations that have a “farm fresh” movement, like Hawaii. Hawaii Regional Cuisine (HRC) is a farm-to-table movement that brings ethnic Hawaiian flavors together with global influences. In Honolulu, the giant, vibrant Hawaii capital, this movement is alive in full, bold color.
Whet Your Appetite for Honolulu
Located on the island of Oahu, Honolulu is the throbbing epicenter of the Hawaiian archipelago. Everything offered by the six main islands can be found right here. From Pearl Harbor to the royal Iolani Palace, and evocative landmarks like the King Kamehameha I Statue or Aloha Tower, Honolulu shines with importance. There are Buddhist temples, botanical gardens, a bursting arts and theatre scene, exciting shopping and fine dining, live music, museums, and lots of cultural opportunities. The city is also a gateway to some of Hawaii’s more captivating charms: its beaches, whale inhabited waters, and Oahu’s remarkable natural and indigenous features.
Travelers heading to this fantastic city should plan a trip with a detailed itinerary to get the best out of the visit. Your trip doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg either. Keep an eye out for great package deals on budget-friendly hotels and cheap flights to Honolulu.
12 Hawaii Chefs and a Simple Vision
Hawaii has always been considered one of the most phenomenal travel destinations in the world, but up until a couple of decades ago, the same couldn’t be said of its dining options. In her HRC cookbook, food writer Janice Wald Henderson writes that visitors to Hawaii were mostly served Western meals that were typical of the U.S. mainland (with a pineapple slice here and there). The dining industry was accustomed to having low-quality, processed foods shipped over long distances. But in 1991, 12 pioneering chefs got together and changed that.
They saw the need for locally sourced and fresh ingredients: fresh fish from high-quality fisheries, fresh produce from Hawaii’s own fertile, volcanic soils, and meat from cattle raised in the state’s highland pastures. The chefs sought to fashion a cuisine that was exciting, mouth-watering, and importantly Hawaiian. They used tropical fruit and vegetables, remixed them with international culinary customs, highlighted Hawaii’s own diverse ethnic influences, and added their own artistic touches. Farmers, chefs, and others in the Hawaiian food industry took notice and joined the movement. And it acquired international attention.
Native Hawaiians trace many of their traditions, including culinary ones, back to their Polynesian ancestors who migrated to the islands thousands of years ago. Take the kalua cooking style, which traditionally involves wrapping meat in ti or banana leaves and lowering it into an underground oven called an imu—a tradition still in use today.
Native foods like taro root are a special part of Hawaiian cuisine. HRC pulls inspiration from examples like these, but also pulls equally from Hawaii’s immigrant presence. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Japan, China, Korea, Portugal, Puerto Rico and elsewhere came to Hawaii in the 19th and 20th centuries to work as plantation laborers. Their customs have become integrated into Hawaiian culture (hence the popularity of sushi and the beloved Hawaiian “plate lunch,” for example). Plate lunches, introduced by plantation workers, are similar to Japanese bento boxes and typically come with two scoops of rice and a hefty entrée.
Many HRC chefs combine Hawaii’s unique cuisine with outside influences in unexpected ways (such as Chef Mavro’s French-Hawaiian fusion dishes) creating truly unique experiences. Added to this is the special beauty and grace with which the food is designed and presented. It’s not just fresh, inventive, and delicious—it’s also pretty to look at.
Restaurants to Try
In Honolulu, you’ll find a lot of Hawaii Regional Cuisine examples to explore. Many of the original 12 chefs have thriving restaurants in town, like Alan Wong’s Honolulu and Pineapple Room, and the Chef Mavro Restaurant. Roy Yamaguchi, credited for popularizing HRC internationally has established restaurants in Honolulu and in other locations across the islands.
What kind of food could you hope to enjoy at one of these hot spots? Feast your mind on ginger crusted onaga fish and macadamia nut-coconut crusted lamb chops, or garlic buttered Kauai prawns and coconut curried Kabocha pumpkin soup. For dessert, how about some coconut sorbet in a chocolate shell, or a passion fruit brulee?
If your journey takes you beyond Honolulu, you’ll discover more opportunities for exploring HRC. Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai, a flagship of a founding HRC chef, is located in Kailua Kona on Hawaii Island. Peter Merriman, another member of the HRC original 12, has restaurants on several islands, including Hawaii Island and Maui.
If you find yourself passing through any of these regions, this selection of hotels in Kailua Kona may accommodate your brief stay without inconveniencing your pocket too much. There’s also a host of cheap hotels in Maui.
Honolulu’s Farm-to-Table Community
Eating fresh and local isn’t new to native Hawaiians. Before there were dining chains, there was farm-to-table fare and that has always been part of the culture. But Hawaii Regional Cuisine has re-energized a passion for wholesomeness that has also penetrated the dining industry. Many eateries have proudly embraced farm-to-table options and are putting new spins on HRC.
There are many other ways to experience food culture in Honolulu. The Honolulu Fish Auction is an exciting place to browse fresh catch, and farmer’s markets present a great opportunity to explore Hawaii’s native fruits and vegetables. There are several in Honolulu, like the Ala Moana Farmers’ Market or Honolulu Farmer’s Market. To get even closer to the land, stray a little outside of Honolulu, and take a tour of one of the many farms in the area, like Kahuku Farms or the Naked Cow Dairy Farm.
Don’t miss the festivals! They are fun ways to learn about (and indulge) in Hawaiian food. The Honolulu Food & Wine Festival is held every September and the Hawaii Fishing and Seafood Festival happens in October.
While you explore the food scene in Hawaii, who knows, you may pick up a few recipes to take back home with you, or discover a taste, or combination of flavors that you’ve never quite experienced before but which becomes an immediate new favourite.
If you’ve already been to Honolulu, maybe you have an interesting food story, or memorable experience you can share. Was there something you learned about Hawaiian food or Hawaiian Regional Cuisine that you never knew before? Feel free to comment below!