Japan's Influence on Hawaiian Food

  • 2 min read

Japan's Influence on Hawaiin Food

Although Hawaii has its own distinct food and culture, there are many aspects that have been deeply influenced by Japan. Japanese people, or people of Japanese descent, are the second largest ethnic group in Hawaii. 

Japan has also long been Hawaii’s largest source of international visitors.

When Japan opened its borders in 1885, there were a relatively small number of Japanese that moved to Hawaii, but all that changed as the need for labor in Hawaii grew. By 1920, people from Japan accounted for 43% of Hawaii's population, and with them came a rich food culture that blended with the local ingredients of the Hawaiian islands. 


Japan's Influence on Hawaiin Food

Hawaiian Plate Lunch

One such dish is the Hawaiian Plate Lunch. While modern versions include some form of rice, macaroni salad, and a main dish, this lunch harkens back to the bento that Japanese workers would pack then bring to eat while working in the fields. Plate lunches can be found just about everywhere in Hawaii, and each version will be different, just like every bento is different.


Japan's Influence on Hawaiin Food


Another favorite in Hawaii is musubi. A true fusion food, musubi brings together Spam from the United States with omusubi (another name for onigiri, or rice balls) from Japan. This food consists of a slab of spam placed on top of rice which is held together by a piece of nori seaweed. Sometimes seasoned with soy sauce and sugar, this portable food can be found almost anywhere in Hawaii. 


Japan's Influence on Hawaiin Food


A more direct import to Hawaii is shave ice, known as kakigori in Japanese. This sweet treat is made of shaved ice, sweet syrup, and condensed milk and can be found across the islands of Hawaii featuring local fruits and ingredients. Unlike snow cones, which generally use crushed ice, the shaved ice captures the ingredients in a lighter, airy and decadent way that's perfect at the beach.


Japan's Influence on Hawaiin Food


One Hawaiian dish that you may think has a strong Japanese heritage but actually doesn’t is poke. This dish of chopped and marinated raw fish served over rice may sound like a Japanese kaisendon (seafood rice bowl), but it actually draws from the Polynesian roots of Hawaii. Fishermen would take fresh fish and mix it with salt, roasted candlenuts (similar to macadamia nuts), and other ingredients to make a handy food to eat while fishing. Modern takes on poke bring in flavors of the islands making it a truly Hawaiian specialty.


About the author: 

Michael Bugajski

Michael Bugajski

Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen.  Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!

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