History of Food In Hawaii: A Journey Through Hawaii’s Foodways


Along the southeastern shore of the island of Oahu lies Waikiki, decorated by lush, green mountains and beautiful beaches with turquoise waters. Today, this paradise is home to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and has become a tourist hotspot. However, centuries before it became a destination for thousands of visitors annually, Waikiki was the preferred residence of Hawaiian kings and chiefs, hence the word royal is in the name of this luxury hotel. In fact, the grounds of the Royal Hawaiian were once the home of King Kamehameha I (1738-1819), who unified the islands and founded the Kingdom of Hawaii (Royal Hawaiian, 2020). It wasn’t until the 1830’s that tourists started travelling to Hawaii. The territorial government started the “Waikiki Reclamation Commission” in 1907 to construct wider roads, build bridges, and drain Waikiki’s aquaculture in anticipation of a greater volume of tourists. This development continued to advance following World War I, as Hawaii grew even more popular as the “gateway to the exotic, faraway destinations of the South Pacific and the Orient.” (Historic Hotels). The Royal Hawaiian itself, which opened in 1927, is but one of many structures that changed the face of Waikiki forever. This cosmetic surgery of Oahu is actually just the tip of a deep iceberg related to the history of human interaction with the Hawaiian islands. This article intends to critically analyze how human behavior, particularly the influence of their foodways, have shaped Hawaiian land and culture into what it is today. 

Royal Hawaiian Resort, 2018

Polynesian Wayfinders

Since humans first landed on the shores of Hawaii, between 250 and 450 A.D., they brought with them a unique way of life that ultimately helped shape the land into what it is today. The first settlers were a group of Polynesian wayfinders, who brought enough plants and animals to sustain a colony in the lands they discovered. Upon their arrival on the Hawaiian islands, they developed an agricultural system that would eventually grow to sustain a civilization of over one hundred thousand people by the late 1700s (Gasik, 2017). The imported plants and animals they introduced included chickens, pigs, dogs, bananas, breadfruit, sugarcane, coconuts, ti leaves, ginger, and the holy grail: taro. According to Polynesian mythology, taro, or kalo as they called it, was believed to be humanity’s older brother. The taro plant reminded the people of their sacred connection to the land, and was eaten as a way of respecting it. Taro was associated with the god, Kane, who created the sun and water, and was revered as the giver of life.  These legends portray the significance of this plant in the islanders lives. Taro was consumed by hand pounding the cooked root into a sticky paste called pa’i’ai. This staple was traditionally the center of every meal. Everything else – vegetables, poke (marinated raw fish), smoked meat, and seaweed salad – was served as condiments to add flavor to the pa’i’ai. Ancient Hawaiians also wrapped taro leaves, or lū’au, around meat which was grilled on top of hot rocks. This is actually how the traditional feast got its name. The leaves were also stewed with coconut milk, diced meat or fish (lū‘au ‘ulo), and served with pa’i’ai. 

Polynesian Wayfinders

Today, taro is the only starch in Hawaii’s foodway that isn’t imported, making it an important crop for the islands to this day. Over time, Hawaiians began diluting the sticky substance with water to make the modern staple, poi. Poi is a purple, pudding-like substance that is eaten with the fingers. Poi can be very watery or thick and doughy, so there are three categories of its consistency: one finger, two fingers, and three fingers, which refer to how many fingers are needed when scooping it. When it’s fresh, poi is sweet and eaten with bread, usually for breakfast. However, after a couple of days pass it grows sour tasting. This type of poi is eaten with salty foods, especially smoked meats or salted fish. Like the taro plant from which it was made, poi was a sacred part of the islanders’ daily lives. They were not allowed to argue or speak angrily to each other when they were eating poi, out of respect for its sanctity (Rummell & Blunt, 2012). Poi has been linked with several health benefits including weight loss, reduced cholesterol, and it is high in calcium and vitamin B (Garza, 2011).  


Another vitally important plant brought to the islands by Polynesian wayfinders was the breadfruit tree, known as ulu, or “the canoe plant.” These trees have one of the highest fruit yields known to humankind. One tree can grow up to 150 fruits per year and the fruits can weigh up to 12 pounds. This plant played a significant role in colonizing the islands, was a key part of their food system, and became an important part of their cultural and spiritual way of life. Not only is breadfruit densely packed with lots of nutrients, but it can be eaten at any stage of development and is a versatile ingredient for cooking. Breadfruit trees were not only capable of supporting over ten thousand people with food, but they were also an important source of medicine, animal feed, lumber, and other crafting materials. The timber from these trees is light but sturdy, making it especially useful for crafting clothes, canoes, and even houses. The tree sap was used as a sealant for the canoes (Breadfruit Trees). 


Western Influences

 From the time that they arrived on the Hawaiian islands the indigenous peoples who lived there were completely self-sufficient, because of the agriculture systems they developed. Their way of life, particularly their food system, kept them connected to the land. However, their way of life was forever changed after a group of Western sailors led by Captain James Cook landed on the Hawaiian islands in 1778 (Gasik, 2017). Captain Cook developed a trading relationship with the islanders that benefitted Western explorers during their long voyages. For example, breadfruit became popular with 18th and 19th century sailors due to its high nutritional value (Dr. Nystrom). Portuguese sailors working the fur and whale trades in the United States acquired salted salmon from the Natives, and ate it as a substitute for the Portuguese bacalhau, or salted codfish. After passing through Hawaii, they bartered this salmon with the islanders in exchange for beef, sugar, and coffee (Gasik, 2017). Lomi-lomi, or finely diced salmon with onion and tomato, became a staple among Hawaii’s poor, and eventually replaced the more traditional poke at lū‘aus. 

Lomi-lomi Salmon

Trading relations with Europe and the United States began during the reign of King Kamehameha I in the early 19th century,  (Langston, 2018). Western immigrants moved to Hawaii to cultivate sugarcane. However, once there they sought to gain political representation and ownership of the land they had previously leased. This led to the creation of the 1840 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which established executive, legislative, and judicial powers. As American immigrants gained more and more political power from being elected into office, Hawaiian natives lost more and more land. Unfortunately, like many other indigenous groups around the world, Hawaiians lost much of their land to the white colonizers who sought to use the natives’ land for their own benefit. In this case, sugarcane played a key role in that interaction. At one point, the British military occupied Hawaii because word spread that the sovereign Hawaiian government was not upholding the rights of British subjects to own land. This put pressure on the King to allow the people to claim ownership of the land.

In 1850 Hawaii’s legislature passed the Alien Land Ownership Act and the Kuleana Act, which further stripped land away from the natives. The Kuleana Act allowed natives to petition for ownership of the land that they already lived on and farmed. However, since many Hawaiians did not understand the concept of private land ownership, many never claimed their title to the land on which they lived. Further, many of those who did acquire land ownership eventually lost it due to property taxes as well as foreign diseases introduced by Westerners (Langston, 2018). 

In the 1850s, Hawaiians began leaving their jobs due to low pay and poor working conditions (Gasik, 2017). Over the following 30 years, more and more Chinese workers immigrated to Hawaii to fill these positions. After completing their labor contracts that lasted around five years, many obtained land leases and cultivated rice in abandoned taro fields, which led to a stable rice industry in Hawaii. However, after 1885, the number of  Japanese immigrants started to outgrow the population of Chinese farmers, and their food preferences became more popular. Short-grain rice was preferred over the Chinese long-grain, which could not be molded into musubi, or rectangular bars of rice served with meat wrapped in seaweed, that now dominate Hawaiian cuisine. This led to the end of the Hawaiian rice industry and the beginning of Hawaii’s importation of short-grain rice from California. Today, rice remains one of the largest imported goods in Hawaii. 

Spam Musubi

At the beginning of the 20th century, exotic tropical fruits, especially pineapple, played an important role in Hawaiian history (Gasik, 2017). James Dole, founder of the Dole Food Company, was related to Sanford B. Dole, who led a rebellion and eventually became President after his provisional government transitioned into the Republic of Hawaii in 1894. Later in the 1890s the first pineapple plantations in Hawaii were established. James Dole acquired a plot of land in 1899 on the island of Oahu (Langston, 2018). The Dole Food Company and other pineapple companies profited off of Hawaii’s post-war relationship with the U.S. Many cookbooks taught Americans how to make dishes that weren’t actually from Hawaii, such as pineapple baked beans and pineapple upside-down cake (Gasik, 2017). Hawaiian pizza was actually invented in Canada around the 1960s. Eventually, Hawaiian chefs began embracing pineapple in dishes such as Spam fried rice. This was partly intended to satisfy the expectations of tourists and partly because the freshness of pineapple actually pairs well with starchy, meat-heavy, fried Hawaiian comfort foods. 

The Royal Hawaiian Resort Menu

Royal Hawaiian Resort Menu, What’s on the Menu? NYPL

This menu is from The Royal Hawaiian Hotel on March 3, 1938, a decade after the hotel first opened its doors. Many of the menu’s items were imported from other countries, specifically to appeal to the tourists. A few examples of these imported goods include salami sausages, French Fried Egg Pontarlier, Irish stew, Chinese squash, mashed potatoes, and lamb chops. Other items on the menu, such as pineapple, boiled rice, and lomi-lomi salmon, portray the history of foreign influences on Hawaiian cuisine. Through interacting with foreign groups, Hawaiians have incorporated these and several other foodstuffs into their diets. Few items on this menu – taro, pork, breadfruit – are strictly traditional Hawaiian cuisine. That is to say, foods that were brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesian Wayfinders (Hawaii’s first immigrants). However, it is likely that even the more traditionally Hawaiian foods on this menu may not have been prepared in the traditional manner. Although this menu may not represent truly authentic Hawaiian cuisine, if you take a closer look, it can tell you a lot about the history of food in Hawaii; how its food and culture have changed over time to what we see today. 

One item on this menu, haupia (pronounced how-p-ahh) is a traditional Hawaiian dessert, typically served at lū‘aus and other gatherings. Haupia is made from four ingredients: coconut milk, sugar, cornstarch, and water. It has a pudding-like consistency, and is made by heating the coconut milk and sugar, then slowly adding a mix of cornstarch and water. When all the ingredients are mixed and the texture is smooth, it is then chilled until it becomes firm. Traditionally, haupia is served with the meal, although it is usually eaten after everything else. Today, haupia often gets incorporated into other desserts, such as cake, ice cream, and pie (Onolicious Hawaii, 2019). You can find a wide variety of mouthwatering haupia-hybrid creations in Hawaii.


Hawaii is a cultural melting pot, which is evident by the many foreign influences on its cuisine. Like the islands themselves, Hawaii’s cuisine developed layer by layer, as various immigrant groups brought their own preferences, adding to its wonderful diversity of flavor. These ingredients – taro, breadfruit, rice, salmon, sugar, coconut milk, pineapple, and many others – have been mixed together over centuries to create a unique and delicious style of cooking and eating in the islands of Hawaii. Today, people from around the world travel to Hawaii for its natural beauty, outdoor activities, and of course, its great food! 

Written By: Angelica Monet

Originally Published: December 18th, 2020 || Last Updated: May 16th, 2020

A part of Doc Studio’s History of the Food in America Collection



Thank you for reading! 🙂

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