Hawaii probably doesn’t top many lists when thinking about culinary destinations, but not for long! Hawaii – a cornucopia of world cultures – is fast becoming the go-to destination for foodie aficionados from around the world. Hawaii is becoming a culinary destination reflective of the uniqueness and bounty of the islands. Showcasing fresh and innovative combinations, many of the islands’ top chefs and restaurants have recently received national recognition for their ability to provide elevated dining experiences that more than satisfy the palate and establish a modern Hawaii sense of place through taste.
Hawaii restaurants such as The Pig and The Lady, Senia and Tin Roof highlight a unique blend of local flavors and showcase a fresh generation of talented chefs, having been recognized among some of culinary’s most elite such as the James Beard Foundation. If you’re feeling adventurous with your palate, here are six reasons why a trip to the islands will bring a smile from cheek to cheek.
1. Hawaii is likely the only place you’ll find (and eat) these dishes. Chefs Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush’s char siu-glazed bone-in pork belly (Senia, Oahu). Chef Sheldon Simeon’s mochiko fried chicken bowl and furikake/arare dime bag (Tin Roof, Maui). Chef Andrew Le’s farmers haku lei (braided garland) salad (The Pig and The Lady, Oahu). Chef Mark Pomaski’s smoky sashimi with kiawe wood-smoked shoyu (Moon and Turtle, island of Hawaii). Chef Ed Kenney’s pulehu (broiled) pork leg steak and long bean opae (shrimp) salad (Mud Hen Water, Oahu). Chef Isaac Bancaco’s chicken-fried Kona cold kampachi (Kaana Kitchen, Maui).
2. Sip, savor and celebrate with a toast to our beer, spirit and cocktail scene.
Several small boutique distilleries have launched in the Islands in recent years, producing craft spirits made, in part, with Hawaii-grown ingredients. Spirits include vodka and whiskey (distilled, not flavored, from pineapple), traditional rum (made with Hawaii-grown sugar), okolehao (a Hawaii-born spirit distilled from the ti plant) and artisanal agricole rums made from heritage sugarcane varietals. While visiting the islands, be sure to take a tour of some these Hawaii distilleries including Maui Ocean Vodka, Koloa Rum, Haliimaile Distillery and many more.
3. Our most progressive chefs are increasingly honoring the little-heralded ingredients and food traditions of their ethnic backgrounds. With the restlessly innovative home kitchen-influenced Vietnamese cuisine dreamed up by Chef Andrew Le at his Oahu restaurant The Pig and the Lady and bold Filipino flavors offered by Maui chef Sheldon Simeon at Hawaii food festivals and on TV’s Top Chef as inspiration, many local chefs are digging deep into their ethnic heritage with modern takes on family recipes and rarely-seen traditional dishes, crafted with little-used or long-forgotten ingredients and preparation techniques. What’s kilawen and com ga hoi an? Google them! Then come to Hawaii and try them.
4. Our farm- and ocean-to-table never travels far to your plate. With Hawaii chefs so close in proximity to local farmers, ranchers and fishermen – the state’s eight islands comprise just 10,931 square-miles – much of the Hawaiian Islands’ locally grown and raised ingredients arrive in restaurant kitchens at peak freshness and flavor, and are often served in their purest form. From fresh-caught amaebi (sweet shrimp) from Kauai and Oahu oysters, to morning-picked, dinner-served island of Hawaii lettuces and Maui fiddlehead fern, farm- and ocean-to-table here is truly just that.
5. You haven’t really tasted poke until you’ve tasted it in Hawaii. The gustatory joys of poke have spread worldwide, but Hawaii is still the best place on Earth to enjoy poke. Why? Simply put, innovation forever respects purity. Perhaps because poke was born here, Hawaii chefs, even as they test the culinary boundaries of the dish, rarely stray far from tenets of the basic recipe – featuring the freshest raw fish, sea salt, seaweed and chopped inamona (kukui nut). Traditional poke is as easy to find in any popular Hawaii poke shop (and find it you must) as varieties that impress with their inventiveness. Some of our favorites include Makai Sushi on Kauai, Tanioka’s on Oahu and Umeke’s on the island of Hawaii. Build-your-own-bowls? They’re less appealing to Hawaii aficionados than heading to favorite shops for poke made with singular, closely guarded recipes.
6. No two food festivals in Hawaii are alike, and none are like you’ve experienced anywhere else. The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival has top Hawaii and worldwide chefs spotlighting local ingredients, dishes and cooking traditions with brilliant dining events. The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and Kau Coffee Festival are all about sharing the best of our homegrown java. The East Maui Taro Festival honors not just kalo, but everything edible that’s grown, raised or fished in the remote district’s small communities. And trust us, in addition to a number of culinary fests for Hawaii-made craft beers and chocolate, the list above is just a start.
Ready to hop on the next flight to Hawaii to pretty much just eat, and eat a lot? You’ll receive more food recommendations than you can handle, from Hawaii residents and visitors, by following the hashtag #LetHawaiiHappen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.