When Captain Cook first arrived in Hawaii in 1778, he estimated Hawaii had a total population of 1 million native islanders (which is nearly as many as reside here today). Isolated from the rest of the world by thousands of miles of ocean, everything Hawaiians needed to support themselves—from the taro roots needed for making fresh poi to the fish flitting about in the sea—was either grown, caught, or cultivated in Hawaii in an effort to feed the community. Today, however, over 85 percent of Maui’s food arrives on island by barge, and many traditional recipes and meals have failed to survive modernization.
Luaus have always served Hawaiian food—and are still a great place to enjoy it—but with the cultural revival and locavore movement, there are now a growing number of restaurants that serve traditional island flavors. Combined with the various ethnic infusions from Maui’s “Mixed Plate” heritage, local cuisine is making a comeback. Here are some of the best places to find it.
Aloha Mixed Plate
Just how traditional is this favorite oceanfront haunt? It now features poi made from taro grown right on the property’s farm. You can also get “luau food” here, like kalua pig and cabbage or a steaming plate of pork lau lau; since the restaurant is partnered with Old Lahaina Luau it’s as authentic as you can get.
While it isn’t Hawaiian in the traditional sense, the food that’s served at Da Kitchen is a staple for modern day Hawaiians. Enormous portions of chicken katsu accompany teriyaki beef; for a real stomach stretch, try a “Big Braddah Combo,” served with mac salad and rice. Also, three words: fried Spam musubi.
Hana Hou Café
There aren’t any luaus in the jungles of Ha‘iku—but you wouldn’t know it from the “Hana Hou Plate” served at this laid-back East Maui hideout. Squid luau and lomi salmon are partnered with lau lau and poi, and top off the plate with a square of haupia—a succulent coconut pudding.
Yes, it’s a supermarket in a nondescript shopping mall, but the diverse selection of ahi poke bowls are what make it a local favorite. If you didn’t think it was possible to find fish in Maui for under $7, sample one of the dozen varieties of the raw fish served over rice—like shoyu or ahi avocado, served with a sprinkling of wasabi.
Though Maui was once homogenously Hawaiian, field laborers who arrived to work the plantations brought their flavors with them. At Kō restaurant in the Fairmont Kea Lani, the multi-ethnic cuisine is a reflection of modern Hawaii. Portuguese sweet bread stuffed with taro accompanies Korean yam noodles, and Filipino lumpia spring-roll appetizers can be paired with Japanese tempura.