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Hawaiian Food and Local Food

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Hawaiian Food and Local Food are two completely different things. Many dishes that visitors call "Hawaiian" are actually "Local." People often mix-up or mash the two into a single category of food. Learn the difference and you'll discover another layer to our beautiful Hawaii.

Graphic with the words: "Local Food and Hawaiian Food: What's the Difference?"

Difference Between Hawaiian Food And Local Food

Ask any local what drives them crazy when it comes to mainland assumptions about food in Hawaii. They will likely say, people don't understand the difference between Hawaiian Food and Local Food.

Hawaiian Food is a specific type of food. Not every unique food found in Hawaii is automatically Hawaiian Food.

Here's the difference:

Hawaiian Food
Think of Hawaiian Food the same way you think of Chinese food, Italian food, Japanese food, etc. It's the food of a specific ethnic group and culture. Hawaiian Food is the food of the native Hawaiians.

Examples of Hawaiian Food:
PoiKulolo, HaupiaLuau StewLau Lau, and Kalua Pig.

Here are recipes to cook Hawaiian Food at home.

Local Food
Local Food is a category of food unique to Hawaii. Local Food is from Hawaii. It is tied to a physical location (Hawaii) and not an ethnic group (Hawaiians).

Examples of Local Food:
Loco MocoSpam MusubiManapuaShave Ice, and Saimin.

Here are recipes to cook Local Food at home.

Local Food is the result of multiple ethnic groups living and growing together in Hawaii. It is a super ono combination of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino etc. food. Local Food is best represented by the Plate Lunch - all the cultures coexist on a single plate.


Because "Local" is a common word and can apply to any other place in the world, one way to make it more clear is to say, "Local Hawaii Food."

If you're not sure if it's Hawaiian Food or Local Food, the best solution is to say, "I had this delicious <name of dish> from Hawaii."

Hawaiian and "From Hawaii"

Hawaiian and Local often get mixed up or jumbled together. The confusion is understandable. You'll find Hawaiian Food and Local Food throughout Hawaii. And oftentimes you can find both types of food at the same place.

For example: visit Zippy's (a local diner chain in Hawaii) and you'll see both saimin (Local Food) and lau lau (Hawaiian Food) on the menu.

It is useful to know the difference in order to understand which dishes come from the Hawaiian culture (Hawaiian Food), and which were created as a result of being and living in the Hawaii (Local Food).

Both Hawaiian Food and Local Food are special to Hawaii. When people make extra effort to understand the difference it means so much to us ^_^

Mainly, we hope you enjoy the food in Hawaii!

The Same Applies To People

The same concept of Hawaiian and Local applies to people. Being from Hawaii doesn't mean that you are Hawaiian.

I am born and raised in Hawaii, but I am not Hawaiian because I don't have Hawaiian ancestry.

I am local (or as we say in Hawaii, kamaʻāina).

Note: When we visit the mainland, people assume we are Hawaiian because we are from Hawaii. All through college in NYC, many classmates knew me as that Hawaiian girl. Same goes for Chinese friends, Japanese friends, and even Hapa friends...when in fact none of us are Hawaiian. Most of us just let it slide. It's hard to get upset about a sincere mix-up.

Ethnicity, Not Geography

In Hawaii, we identify ourselves by ethnicity, not by geography.

Residents of California are Californians. Residents of New York are New Yorkers. This rule does not apply in Hawaii because Hawaiian is an ethnicity. Hawaiian is not a label that you get because you live in Hawaii.

Common ethnicities in Hawaii are: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, etc.

Some friends are, "third generation Japanese-Chinese." Others are "second generation Korean" or "fifth generation Chinese." These friends have had generations of parents and grandparents who were born and raised in Hawaii.

They are Local because they are from Hawaii but don't have Hawaiian ancestry.

Foods Get Hawaii-ized

You may already know this, but there is amazing Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino etc. food in Hawaii. The food here is delicious. It is also inviting and fun. Hawaii is my favorite place in the world to eat.

Pay attention and one very cool thing you will notice is that many ethnic foods in Hawaii have been "Hawaii-ized."

Korean food is not traditional Korean, but a Hawaii version of Korean. The ever popular Korean plate lunch is a good example of this.

Chinese food is Chinese, but it is far from traditional, and usually a bit sweeter. The giant and beloved manapuas of Hawaii evolved from Chinese char siu bao. The steamed Chinese siu mai evolved into pork hash after being adapted to the Hawaii palate.

All different ethnic cultures contributed their own foods and traditions. Instead of having one dominate, they grew and evolved together. The result? Super ono food in Hawaii ^_^

A dish of Green Beans with Sesame Dressing (Gomaae).
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Food Etiquette In Hawaii
Mahalo for Reading!