On a recent trip to Kaua’i, I was quite fortunate to make a wonderful new friend, Shere’e. Growing up on Oahu, Shere’e was proud of the islands she calls home. During our time together, she freely shared a great deal about her Hawaiian culture, including many of her favorite Hawaiian dishes.
Back in the day, Hawaiians had to use whatever was growing on the islands to survive. They couldn’t rely on importing food from other places. This meant kitchen creativity was a must just to keep food on the table. Thankfully, times have changed – a lot. While imported foods are the norm now, luckily, many traditional foods have remained a common staple on Hawaiian tables.
Spanning more than a century, sugar plantations were big business on the islands. Today, the industry has all but vanished. However, a few local farmers still grow sugarcane. After taking in the gorgeous views at Waimea Canyon State Park, we stop by a local vendor’s table in the park. Shere’e wants me to try raw sugarcane. It comes freshly cut in small pieces with a small brown paper bag on the side. I chew on the fiber of the plant to release light sweet juice. After the sweet taste is gone, I spit out the fiber into the provided paper bag.
Shere’e tells me raw sugarcane reminds her of her childhood. I quickly think back to my younger years. My equivalent is sucking out sweet nectar from a honeysuckle.
Native to Australia, Macadamia nuts were introduced to Hawaii in the late 1800s by a sugar plantation farmer. Fast-forward to today and Hawai’i is the largest producer of Macadamia nuts in the world. A wide range of flavors can be purchased from lightly salted to wasabi to Spam (yes, Spam!) flavors which are readily available everywhere. It’s like a rite of passage to pick up a few packages to bring back home, so I follow suit.
Kulolo is a centuries old traditional dessert enjoyed by many Hawai’ians today. Its ingredients are simple – mashed up taro, coconut milk, and sugar. To me, Kulolo tastes like sweet potato with a hint of applesauce, presented in an extremely moist way with a fudge-like consistency.
Shere’e tells me kulolo is a common dish on her family’s menus for parties and celebrations. She explains this simple, but delicious dish is simply served by just cutting into squares and arranging on a platter.
Pro Tip: Kulolo can be purchased already prepared, from local grocery stores and smaller restaurants. Before purchasing, gently squeeze the package to see if it’s soft. Don’t buy Kulolo when hard to the touch. Of course, I learned this pro tip from Shere’e.
Poké is cubed raw tuna or salmon served on sushi rice or salad, and then topped with a variety of ingredients. Early Hawaiians ate freshly caught raw fish tossed in salt and seaweed. This style of seafood evolved into staple of today’s street food. Poké is a classic Hawaiian dish served up at casual and high-end restaurants. This simple dish has plenty of variations with huge influences from Asian cuisines.
From my love of seafood and all things Hawaiian, I have known about poké for years. While on Kauai, I happily eat poké whenever I can.
This refreshing dessert’s origins have been traced going back many years to Japan. Shave ice is an ice-based dessert created by shaving, you guessed it, a block of ice. Finely shaven, the ice looks like snow. It’s extremely fine texture absorbs added syrups and fruit juices easily. Shere’e prefers shave ice made only with fresh local juices, with nothing artificial added. She took me to her favorite place, Wailua Shave Ice in Kapa’a. Shere’e couldn’t have been more right. I love every bite of this delicious treat.
Using the natural ingredients native to the islands make Hawaiian dishes uniquely their own. It was a culinary Eden for me. I savored every bite and long for more of this standout cuisine.