Modern Hawai`i is young, I realize from my vantage point on the peak of Mauna Kea, the highest point in the state. Without moving, I can see all five of the state’s volcanos, even Maui’s Haleakala, which sits across a blue sea channel. To the east, steam rises in a plume where lava flows into the ocean, adding 42 acres to the island every year.
Like the lava, Hawai`i’s culture and cuisine has grown, layer by layer, over years, expanding as waves of immigrants each brought something new to the islands. These ingredients—beef, rice, spam, pineapples, soy sauce, black pepper, and many others—mingled and fused to create the “local style” dishes that are unmistakably and perplexingly Hawaiian. Why are macaroni salad and white rice paired on the Hawaiian plate lunch? Or pork-stuffed Chinese rice buns a gas station specialty? Why do Portuguese pastries outsell the all-American donut? Finally, Hawaiian pizza—just why?
Digging down through the layers of Hawai`i’s home cooking exposes a chronology of people, plants and politics that together build what today we think of as Hawaiian cuisine.
Pre-1778: The Polynesians
Daniel Anthony and his crew throw a makeshift lunch table over the shallow concave kui boards, where all morning they’ve been heaving basalt lava pestles into a mash of taro root. The food arrives in plastic containers: shredded seaweed salad, flakey imu-baked tuna, kālua pork, fried bananas, and a bag of crackers. Daniel reaches into one of the kui and slaps out a grey-lavender slab of pa’i’ai, the sticky precursor to poi, to add to the lunch spread.
“We eat poi every day,” he says. “Like the ancient Hawaiians.”
Anthony’s small company, Mana Ai, is bringing back the simple, whole foods carried to Hawaii by Polynesian sea voyagers around 300 CE. These first immigrants brought an onslaught of imported foodstuffs, including chickens, pigs, dogs for eating, and the staple “canoe plants”: taro, bananas, breadfruit, sugar cane, and coconuts.