Hawaii is my favourite place on earth. I had fallen madly in love with the state ever since visiting my brother living there in 2013. From the sights, the amazing people to the food or maybe just that laid-back island vibe, there simply is something magical about Hawaii. Although I have had only visited Honolulu twice, Big Island and Maui, going back is always on my mind.
When it comes to food, Hawaii is also somewhat of a melting pot of cultures, though not as congested as other metropolis like Shanghai and Singapore.
There is a big Japanese influence in the Hawaiian culture, which baffled me at first, considering the Pearl Harbour bombing in World War 2.
Turns out that because of the bombing, Japanese Americans at the time were naturally picked on by the local people, and hence were sent off to Europe to fight in the war. Eventually they returned as victorious war heroes, and ended up becoming politicians and governors of Hawaii.
That is the reason why to this day, there is a strong Japanese influence and population in Hawaii.
But I digress.
My favourite place to eat in Honolulu, is at Ono Hawaiian Foods. It is one of the oldest restaurants serving traditional Hawaiian cuisine, with over 40 years of history.
Located on Kapahulu avenue, Ono Hawaiian Foods is a small eatery whose age is definitely shown on the exterior. Upon entering, one would see over 40 years worth of local and international celebrity patronage and endorsements plastered all over the walls. It is also highly likely that you would be greeted by Cindy Oh Young, daughter-in-law of founder, Sueko Oh Young.
The lunch plates at Ono Hawaiian Foods come with a variety of small dishes, almost like Korean Banchan.
You can also choose to have your dishes with rice or Poi. Poi is fermented taro paste, and was the staple carbohydrate component for Polynesians back in the day. It is the equivalent of rice to Chinese.
When you choose to have Poi, the proprietors of Ono Hawaiian Foods will ask you if you have tasted Poi before, and if you would like to have a small sample to taste first.
The reason is because Poi could be a highly acquired taste, it is after all, fermented.
Unlike many other fermented foods that are high in salt content, Poi is actually very bland. Instead, it has a slightly sour taste, like as if the mashed taro had gone bad, which kind of happens from the heat generated during the pounding process.
I have to admit, the first time I tried Poi, I was a little put off.
On subsequent attempts, it grew on me, especially after pairing it liberally with the richer dishes such as the Laulau and Kalua pork. It then dawned on me at how perfectly strong tasting foods pair together with Poi in a harmonious balance. I found dipping the provided raw onions into the Poi to be an especially remarkable pairing.
Let us talk about the accompaniments.
This is a cold refreshing dish of diced salted salmon and tomatoes.
It tasted almost exactly like how it sounded – clean and bright flavours, with the slightly salty salmon balanced perfectly with the sweet tangy tomatoes. The dish is meant to be somewhat of a palate cleanser against the heavier ones.
Pipikaula is essentially beef jerky made with flank steak.
Although it might taste dry and chewy, a few more subsequent bites revealed the complexities of the beef against the initial smokiness. It was something that tasted better and better with every chew.
To be honest, I am still not entirely sure what was the proper intention of the raw onions, but I dipped them in the Poi, and found their spicy flavours toned down by the Poi, creating some kind of startling harmony.
Haupia is the Hawaiian term for coconut.
This is a sort of pudding/cake made from coconut. We have a term for this type of food in Singapore called Kueh. The Haupia served as a very light and pleasant finish for the meal, filling the tastebuds with a lovely coconutty fragrance without filling the stomach.
Next up is the main dish you would choose to go with your plate. I have had the Kalua Pig, Laulau and Chicken Long Rice. I’ve also ordered the Salt Meat Watercress soup a la carte.
Each plate costs $14.35, but you can also order a combo plate with both Laulau and Kalua pig for $18.15.
Laulau is a traditional Hawaiian dish that is essentially pork wrapped in taro leaves, which are then steamed until both the leaves and the pork within are falling apart and infused their flavours with each other.
It looked like a simple dish, but tasted great on so many levels.
From the super tender textures of the flavourful, slightly fatty pork to the infused and perfectly balanced flavours of the taro leaves. It tasted like a dish made by grandma with love. Simply unforgettable.
Kalua pig is essentially pork that is roasted or smoked the Hawaiian way until fall apart tender. It is served with the meat pulled apart like pulled pork.
The smokiness is evident and iconic of the dish. The portion pictured here was from the combo plate, the individual version should be bigger.
It is also quite salty, but nothing a dip of Poi cannot cut out. Poi and Kalua pig were simply made for each other, like butter on toast.
Chicken Long Rice
The name of this dish was quite intriguing. I kept wondering what in the world was ‘Long Rice’? Basmati rice perhaps?
I was naturally surprised when the dish arrived as a glass noodle soup. Vermicelli. That’s what ‘Long Rice’ is. It was also the thicker type of vermicelli.
The soup was a clear, yet full bodied chicken soup with chunks of chicken meat scattered within.
Slurping the warm slippery noodles felt especially comforting on a cooler day in Honolulu. I felt a lot of Chinese influences in this dish.
Salt Meat Watercress
The meat is beef, and from what I could tell, likely cured in salt for awhile before being braised until fall apart tender. This dish caught my attention because I witnessed many locals ordering it, along with the fact that watercress soup is also a classic cantonese soup, making me curious on the version served at Ono Hawaiian Foods.
The soup arrived in a large bowl, with huge slabs of beef and more surprisingly, raw watercress piled on top.
The versions I was used to had the watercress cooked to oblivion in the soup. The Hawaiian version meant for the watercress to simply be lightly cooked by being steeped in the hot soup. Wouldn’t the watercress stems be too tough and chewy?
Remarkably, not! Instead, the watercress had a nice crunch, while not being chewy at all.
The soup itself also had great watercress flavours. The raw watercress paired harmoniously with the meat, offsetting its saltiness.
I found eating rice steeped in the soup especially lovely.
This concludes my little feature on Ono Hawaiian Foods in Honolulu. There are several more items on the menu at Ono Hawaiian Foods, but these were probably the most iconic ones — the ones my wife and I always return to.
If you are ever in Honolulu, be sure to make a trip. It will likely be unforgettable.
Let me know what you think in the comments below!