How Hawaiian Food Went Mainstream in New York City

Beth Kaiserman


When you’re hungry in New York, the world is at your fingertips. You can sample food from all over the globe just by hopping on a subway.


A recent food arrival comes by way of Hawaii. Hawaiian food is greatly influenced by Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Portuguese cultures, among others. Hawaiian food today mostly reflects the massive immigration to Hawaii in the late 1800s.


The most iconic Hawaiian dish is probably the plate meal: grilled or fried meat, macaroni salad and rice. Spam is often used as a main meat. Spam musubi, fried spam on a bed of rice wrapped in seaweed, is a popular snack in Hawaii and also found on sushi menus. The popularity began in WWII, when GIs consumed Spam, according to Spam’s website, and the meat had become a staple in local culture by the end of the war.


Polynesian islanders were the original settlers of Hawaii. Poi was a Polynesian staple made from the taro plant and is still enjoyed today along with yams and sweet potatoes. Pineapple was first cultivated in 1813 and by the late 19th century became the state’s largest crop along with sugarcane. Poke means “chunk” or “section” in Hawaiian, and is chunks of raw marinated fish or seafood like yellowfin tuna or salmon.


Hawaiian regional cuisine took off in 1991, launched by 12 chefs in Hawaii who wanted to showcase the local goods of the land and the different ethnicities that contributed to Hawaiian food culture. The cuisine is dubbed “island cuisine.”


Chef Jon Matsubara is chef de cuisine at Japengo in Waikiki, an Asian fusion restaurant serving island classics and seasonal tasting menus. He said Hawaiian food has seen positive change during his career.


“We are using more local ingredients than ever before and have been able to share our progress through various social media channels,” he said. “I am equally excited and honored to play an active role in the Hawaiian food movement.”



As far as creating authentic Hawaiian food in NYC, Matsubara says it’s all about creativity.


“I think this can be replicated in New York City if chefs can find ways to creatively substitute hard-to-find Hawaiian ingredients with more readily available ingredients,” he said.


Hawaiian food in NYC


About six years ago, Alfred DiMartini fell in love with poke in Hawaii. When he got back to New York he couldn’t find it.


“For a couple years I was flying back every summer to Hawaii or San Diego. Sometimes the most exciting part of planning my trip was looking forward to some poke,” he said.


He poked around on Chowhound forums and found he wasn’t the only one hungry for authentic poke. He decided to feed the need with East Coast Poke, selling poke bowls for $12 at various events. After a rocky first few weeks at Smorgasburg in 2014, poke became popular and has really taken off this summer, DiMartini said.



One thing DiMartini has noticed at Hawaiian restaurants here is the quality of the tuna.


“It’s good ahi but you can tell they’re using the frozen stuff,” DiMartini said. “I think I’m the only one that’s really doing the authentic poke bowls.”


DiMartini gets his tuna weekly on Fridays from a vendor in Hawaii who also supplies Le Bernardin and Mario Batali’s restaurants, he said. Native Hawaiians here in New York have lauded him for the poke’s authenticity, he said.


The deliciousness starts with a bowl of soft rice, slightly sweetened with flecks of pineapple. A layer of seaweed is next, then a hearty portion of tuna chunks on top. The tuna is silky and impeccably fresh. On top are black and white sesame seeds, red salt and a sprinkle of wasabi, all imported from Hawaii as well.


East Coast Poke is available for the remainder of Smorgasburg this year and at other events in the city. DiMartini hopes to expand into college campuses like Rutgers and Stonybrook.


Noreetuh, which means “playground” in Korean, is the most recent of the Hawaiian restaurants to hit New York City. Located in the East Village, it’s run by three veterans of fine dining staple Per Se and serves a modern take on Hawaiian dishes. Also in the East Village, tiki bar Mother of Pearl offers totem pole seats, rum drinks and foods like tuna poke and ginger glazed kalua pork belly. More fast food style fare can be found uptown in two locations of Hawaiian and Japanese BBQ spot Makana.


In Brooklyn, Onomea in Williamsburg serves more traditional Hawaiian fare, while Suzume offers musubi, sushi, ramen and tacos in an informal setting, fusing Japanese, Filipino and Hawaiian influences. A Hawaiian fried chicken bowl combines market greens, chicken katsu and pineapple macaroni salad. Both opened in 2013.


“Aloha” in Hawaiian means “sharing the breath of life.” It’s not just a greeting, but it’s a way of life for Hawaiians - all about loving yourself and spreading that love to others. What better way to do that than by sharing the gift of island cuisine with the rest of the world? Hopefully the love for Hawaiian food will spread, offering us more delicious discoveries around the island of Manhattan.


Author Bio:

Beth Kaiserman is Highbrow Magazine’s chief food critic.

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Beth Kaiserman; Google Images
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