Hawaii is a melting pot of many different ethnicities and it’s reflected in the state’s food culture. If you’re anything like my wife and I, you’ll find yourself craving local food as soon as you step on that plane home. Here is our list of 10 essential items you’ll need in your kitchen to enjoy the flavors of Hawaii no matter where you are.
1. Hawaiian Rock Salt.
I primarily use red alaea salt, a natural sea salt baked in clay that’s rich in iron. I’ve been using red alaea salt for as long as I’ve been cooking. Due to its distinctive mineral content, red alaea salt adds a unique flavor to any dish and can be used for standard seasoning or as a finishing salt. There are a variety of different Hawaiian rock salt options, check out the Salty Wahine brand for more unique options of salts and spice rubs.
2. Rice Cooker.
White rice is quite literally on every table, at every meal, in nearly every home. It’s a cross-cultural staple and people do enjoy many varieties. Individual restaurants will vary depending on the cuisine they offer, but the most common variety is medium grain rice, such as Nishiki. People may feel it’s inauthentic or a shortcut to use a rice cooker, but it’s completely accepted in Asian and especially local Hawaiian culture. At no point in the 7 years that I have known my wife (and her family and friends) has rice been cooked in anything other than a rice cooker. While there are several options for rice cookers that range from inexpensive to very expensive, my wife and I love our Aroma Rice Cooker. This rice cooker is an inexpensive versatile piece that can steam vegetables and make soups. Jacqui even used to make our daughter’s baby food using our rice cooker. Pro tip: Don’t worry about making extra rice because you can use your leftover rice to make fried rice the next day. Rice that’s been in the fridge tends to be a bit drier so it doesn’t get mushy when you fry it.
3. A wok.
This simple tool can be found in almost every household here on Oahu. The tall sides allow you to create soups or do braised dishes (my favorite being braised pork belly) while still providing a large amount of surface area to deep fry, sear, and sauté your favorite ingredients. Remember, a good wok is not just for Asian food—it can be an everyday tool that no matter what style or ingredients you’re using. For beginners, I recommend the T-fal Jumbo Non-Stick Wok. This was the first wok I picked out for myself when I started to learn how to cook good Asian-inspired food. This wok has a 14” diameter which makes it bigger than a lot of others in this price range. But even if you’re not cooking big meals, don’t let the size intimidate you—having that extra space means it’s less likely you’ll lose a stray mushroom or piece of pork when you start stir frying! You do have to watch the non-stick surface (we have a nice set of silicone cookware), but that being said it lasted us almost 5 years before we had to retire it. Best of all—it’s dishwasher safe!
4. Shoyu (soy sauce).
Shoyu serves as the basis of many of the flavors of Hawaii. It is the base of teriyaki sauce, it helps to season fried rice, and is used to enhance sushi, saimin, and a host of other things from many cultures. Whether you’re making Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, or Filipino food (the list is endless!) shoyu will be a central component in your flavor profile. Traditionally, our family leads towards the bold flavor of Kikkoman. In Hawaii, many people love local brand Aloha Shoyu and others enjoy Yamasa. I find each has their place in my cooking, truthfully. I find that Kikkoman and Yamasa make better dipping shoyu; I enjoy having them on the table for fish or white rice. Aloha Shoyu has a subtler flavor that I prefer to use in my marinades and other cooking uses.
5. NOH seasoning packets.
The Noh family has been bringing flavor to Hawaii kitchens for decades now. Whether it’s char siu (Chinese barbecue pork) seasoning, curry, teriyaki, fried rice, Chinese roast duck or the myriad of other options, the Noh family officially has you covered. Hell, even Jack in the Box uses NOH seasoning in their fried rice—yup, even Jack in the Box has fried rice here. Jacqui’s mom used to send us dozens of these packets in her care packages from home. One night, early on in her grad school days when money was tight we made char siu flavored pork neck bones. I don’t know if I’d do it again with neck bones, but I’ve never stopped using the NOH seasoning packets for my char siu.
Some people snicker, but spam has a special place in the culinary heart of Hawaii. Whether it’s spam and eggs for breakfast, or spam flavoring your saimin or fried rice—it’s everywhere. People love it! People here like the spam cut thicker and cooked so it stays softer which makes it perfect for spam musubis (a block of rice topped off with seasoned spam and wrapped in seaweed). But, pro tip: if it’s cut thin and fried crispy, spam takes on the character of bacon. This is how my mom used to cook it, so it holds a special place in my heart. It’s also my father in law’s favorite method and the only way he’ll eat spam nowadays. We prefer the lower sodium spam—all the same flavor, but 25% less sodium.
7. Teriyaki sauce.
If you’re not making your own teriyaki sauce, Mr. Yoshida’s Original Gourmet Sauce is the only choice. It’s perfect for marinating meat, using in stir-fries, glazing barbecue, or dipping (like how my brother in law uses it).
8. Sesame Oil.
It’s hard to describe the unique flavor that sesame oil adds to a dish, but some dishes are just not complete without it. It has a distinct nutty flavor that is a key component of many dishes for many different cuisines (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and even Middle Eastern.). I use it as a base for all my stir-fries. Be careful, a little goes a long way.
9. Oyster Sauce.
For me, oyster sauce is a direct companion to sesame oil, especially for vegetable stir-fries. It’s a thick sauce that adds the signature umami flavor to many of my favorite dishes. When Jacqui and I started dating my mom—the woman who could cook anything she put her mind to—had pretty much given up on trying to make a proper tasting fried rice at home. So, when Jacqui said she would make fried rice for dinner my mom politely agreed but didn’t expect much. Boy was she wrong! “What did you put in here? How did you do that?” A little bit of oyster sauce. Jacqui added it to close to every Asian meal she made. She was a little heavy-handed so it took me a minute to get used to the flavor but now we only buy oyster sauce in bulk. In Hawaii, there is pretty much only one trusted brand: Lee Kum Kee. We prefer the no MSG green label variety.
Ponzu is Japanese sauce of a citrus and shoyu. You’ll find a variety of different types of fruit used to flavor the sauce such as lemon, lime, or yuzu, and all have their own time and place depending on your preference. It’s commonly used as a dipping sauce for fish and tofu, but I really enjoy it with meatier options, like oxtail and pork. It’s especially tasty with fried items, such as shrimp tempura or potstickers, as the citrus helps cut through the heaviness of the oil. Pro tip: add ponzu to some fresh grated daikon radish and use it as a dip for any lightly seasoned grilled fish, such as hamachi kama (yellowtail collar).
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