By Jeanette Foster
While in Hawaii, you’ll encounter many labels that embrace the fundamentals of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine and the sophistication, informality, and nostalgia it encompasses. Euro-Asian, Pacific Rim, Indo-Pacific, Pacific Edge, Euro-Pacific, fusion cuisine, Hapa cuisine — by whatever name, Hawaiian Regional Cuisine has evolved as Hawaii’s singular cooking style, which some say is this country’s current gastronomic, as well as geographic, frontier. It highlights the fresh seafood and produce of Hawaii’s rich waters and volcanic soil, the cultural traditions of Hawaii’s ethnic groups, and the skills of well-trained chefs — such as Peter Merriman (Merriman’s on the Big Island and Hula Grill on Maui), Roy Yamaguchi (Roy’s on Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai), Alan Wong (Alan Wong’s Restaurant and Pineapple Room, both on Oahu; and Hualalai Grille on the Big Island), and Beverly Gannon (Haliimaile General Store on Maui).
Fresh ingredients are foremost here. Farmers and fishermen work together to provide steady supplies of just-harvested seafood, seaweed, fern shoots, vine-ripened tomatoes, goat cheese, lamb, herbs, taro, gourmet lettuces, and countless harvests from land and sea. These ingredients wind up in myriad forms on ever-changing menus, prepared in Asian and Western culinary styles. Exotic fruits introduced by recent Southeast Asian emigrants — such as sapodilla, soursop, and rambutan — are beginning to appear regularly in Chinatown markets. Aquacultured seafood, from seaweed to salmon to lobster, is a staple on many menus. Additionally, fresh-fruit sauces (mango, litchi, papaya, pineapple, guava), ginger-sesame-wasabi flavorings, corn cakes with sake sauces, tamarind and fish sauces, coconut-chile accents, tropical-fruit vinaigrettes, and other local and newly arrived seasonings from Southeast Asia and the Pacific impart unique qualities to the preparations.
At the other end of the spectrum is the vast and endearing world of “local food.” Reflecting a polyglot population of many styles and ethnicities, Hawaii’s idiosyncratic dining scene is eminently inclusive. Consider Surfer Chic: Barefoot in the sand, in a swimsuit, you chow down on a plate lunch ordered from a lunch wagon, consisting of fried mahimahi, “two scoops rice,” macaroni salad, and a few leaves of green, typically julienned cabbage. (Generally, teriyaki beef and shoyu chicken are options.)
Bento, another popular quick meal available throughout Hawaii, is a compact, boxed assortment of picnic fare usually consisting of neatly arranged sections of rice, pickled vegetables, and fried chicken, beef, or pork. Increasingly, however, the bento is becoming more health-conscious, as in macrobiotic bento lunches or vegetarian brown-rice bentos. A derivative of the modest lunch box for Japanese immigrants who once labored in the sugar and pineapple fields, bentos are dispensed everywhere, from department stores to corner delis and supermarkets.
Each island chapter has a list of restaurants that are kid-tested, not only for the food (so important for your finicky eaters), but also based on how friendly and welcoming the restaurant is for families. I’ve recommended a variety of affordable ethnic eateries (from Chinese to Hawaiian) as well as romantic restaurants featuring Hawaiian Regional Cuisine that are perfect for an adults’ night out.
To save a little money, look for the early-bird specials, around 5 or 6pm when restaurants are trying to lure in customers. You can save a bundle just by eating an hour earlier.
The Very Expensive category means a family of two adults and two kids are looking at a bill of $200 (yes, $200, and that’s if mom and dad aren’t big drinkers). In the Expensive category, the same family of four can expect to spend $150. In the Moderate category, the family of four is looking at a dinner bill of $75 to $100. In the Inexpensive category, a family of four can eat for less than $75.