Looking for the best food to try on the Big Island? Read below to find out what you definitely need to sample and the best places to get it.
The Big Island of Hawaii has a unique and varied food scene. This is partly because of their tropical climate. But it’s also because of the contributions of those who have immigrated to the island throughout Hawaii’s history. The local cuisine is a combination of tasty snacks, treats and dishes you can’t find anywhere else.
READ MORE: Most Unique Things to Do on the Big Island
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Best Food to Try on the Big Island
If you’re a foodie and heading to Hawaii, you’ll want to sample all the best food to try on the Big Island. From loco moco and musubi to locally made chocolate, macadamia nuts and some of the best coffee in the world, these are just a few of the local dishes you’ll want to check out.
1. Shave Ice
Shave ice is the perfect treat on a hot Hawaiian day. It’s exactly what it sounds like – shaved ice piled high in a bowl. But what really sweetens the deal is it comes with your choice of up to three syrups as well as a variety of toppings. You can even get a scoop of ice cream in the centre of it. (Since you’re in Hawaii, mac nut is always a great ice cream choice). Shave ice is similar to a snow cone, but because the ice is shaved down instead of crushed, it’s fluffier and softer.
Where to Find It: While there are many places to get shave ice, especially in Kona, one of the best places is Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice inside the Courtyard by Marriot King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. They use their own specialty syrups made of pure cane sugar and natural fruit purees and juices. They have some fun gourmet add-ons like a snow cap which is sweetened condensed milk.
Parking Tip: if you park in the paid lot at the Marriott, you can get Ululani’s to validate your parking.
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2. Poke Bowl
Poke is a very popular classic Hawaiian dish made of diced, raw fish (usually ahi tuna) on a bed of rice. In Hawaiian, poke means “to cut crossways into pieces. There are a variety of different options when it comes to ordering a poke bowl, including different fish, sauces and sides. You’ll want to go early for the best choices for your poke bowl as the most popular locations run out of the best fish fast.
Where to Find it: For traditional Hawaiian-style poke, you’ll want to head to Da Poke Shack in Kona or head to Hilo to order from the window of the Poke Market.
3. Spam Musubi
In Canada, people might give you an odd look if you tell them you like to eat spam. But in Hawaii, spam is a very popular type of meat – so much, in fact, there’s a spam festival on Oahu every year. If you aren’t familiar, spam is canned pork. It was originally made for soldiers to eat during WWII. While spam is often fried alongside eggs for breakfast or eaten on its own, one popular way to consume spam is in musubi. Similar to Japanese onigiri, musubi is a snack made with a base of packed white rice topped with meat or fish (in this case, grilled spam) wrapped with nori, a dried, edible seaweed.
Where to Find it: Spam Musubi can be found in convenience stores around the Big Island, but one of the best places is at the register at either of the two Matsuyama Food Marts on the island.
I’m obsessed with mochi (pronounced “mo-chee”) – especially ice cream mochi . Which is why I was so excited to hear about a local shop in Hilo that makes dozens of different types of mochi – fresh to order. Mochi is traditionally a Japanese treat made of glutinous rice pounded into a paste and then moulded around the filling. Mochi is soft and a little chewy. While traditional mochi is filled with different types of bean paste, you can put nearly anything sweet or savoury inside it, from fruit like strawberries, apples and mandarin oranges to contemporary flavours like brownies, Oreos, marshmallows, peanut butter and chocolate.
Where to Find it: Travel to Two Ladies Kitchen in Hilo for their tasty made-fresh-to-order mochi. Their storefront is tiny and the line can be long. You’ll likely have to wait outside for your order so consider calling in ahead of time to skip the wait.
A visit to the Big Island isn’t a proper visit until you’ve indulged in malasadas. These fried donuts are originally a Portuguese treat but have become famous in Hawaii. The donuts are coated with granulated sugar but instead of the traditional centre hole, the centre of malasadas are filled with a variety of different flavours including haupia (coconut), cherry, cream, chocolate and blueberry. (They’re like a Boston Cream in Canada). You can also order them plain with a soft doughy centre which makes sense as malasada actually means “undercooked” in Portuguese. But the best part is, malasadas are usually served fresh and still warm.
Where to Find it: Two of the most popular places to order malasadas are Tex Drive-In on the Hamakua Coast and the Punalu’u Bake Shop in Kau en route to Volcanoes National Park. You’ll want to arrive before or well after 10AM. All the tour buses arrive at this time and the lines are out the doors.
6. Loco Moco
Loco moco is another classic Hawaiian dish consisting of a hamburger and fried egg on white rice and gravy. The dish was inspired by a group of teenagers at the Lincoln Grill in the 1940s when they asked for something different from a sandwich. What was created was the “loco moco” and it was named after one of the teens. Today it’s a popular comfort food that can be found across the island.
Where to Find it: While loco moco is served up in a variety of establishments on the Big Island, the Pine Tree Cafe in Kona and Cafe 100 or Ken’s House of Pancakes in Hilo have some of the best.
7. Fresh Catch of the Day
For anyone who lives in the interior of a country, fresh catch of the day is not a common menu option. But in Hawaii, nearly every menu offers fresh fish caught that morning. It’s worth indulging in any time you can as this is some of the best fish to enjoy. Hawaiian restaurants often encrust their fish with a coconut or mac nut panko-style crust which makes it sweet, savoury and crunchy.
Where to Find it: Regardless of night or day, weekday or weekend, Pineapples in Hilo is always packed. And for good reason. They serve up some of the best dishes on the island, including their coconut-crusted fresh catch which is one of their most popular dinner items.
Coffee aficionados sing the praises of Kona coffee due to its sweet and fruity profile with hints of spice or nuts. It’s grown at higher altitudes and in ideal conditions on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualalai. This means the beans from these coffee plants are specifically known as Kona coffee. (Just like real champagne is exclusive to the Champagne region of France). Because of its rarity, Kona coffee is one of the most expensive in the world. But be aware – if purchasing for yourself or a loved one, you’ll want to check the percentage on the bag. True Kona coffee will be 100%. A blend only needs 10% of Kona coffee and the remaining 90% will be cheaper imported beans.
Where to Find It: A great way to learn about Kona coffee is to visit a coffee farm. You’ll also get to try coffee samples and coffee-based treats. You can buy Kona coffee directly from these farms. A variety of coffee shops on the island also carry Kona coffee including Kona Mountain Coffee and Kone Coffee and Tea.
9. Kalua Pork
Kalua pork is a popular savoury Hawaiian dish most notably served at luaus. The word “kalua” refers to cooking a pig in an underground pit called “imu.”
Kalua pork is also an easy recipe to make at home. The pork is simply seasoned with salt and wood and smoke flavouring. Cooking it in a slow cooker or instant pot ensures it’s tender and juicy.
Where to Find it: Check out the Big Island Grill or Broke Da Mouth Grindz in Kona or The Fish and the Hog in Waimea for some of the best Kalua pork.
10. Hawaiian Chocolate
Chocoholics will be happy to hear that the Big Island is home to several cacao farms. While it’s a relatively new agricultural endeavour starting in the 1990s, the industry has been growing successfully. In a similar vein to coffee, the climate and soil conditions on the island make for great growing conditions. This results in a variety of nuanced flavours. There are several farms around the island that produce high-quality Hawaiian chocolate. The farms also offer tours to learn more about the cacao bean and chocolate-making process.
Where to Find it: Touring a cacao farm is the best way to not only learn about how chocolate is made but to try samples and purchase some to take home with you. Most tours last about an hour. Check out Lavaloha just outside of Hilo or Puna Chocolate Co. which has farms in both Kona and Hilo. Puna Chocolate Co. has several standalone stores. They sell their goods and have a cafe where you can order pure drinking chocolate.
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