The Vegetarian Resource Group Blog

Mele Munching: Happy Vegan Eating in Hawai’i

Posted on March 03, 2016 by The VRG Blog Editor

By Madeline St. John

There are a few reasons why Hawai’i is considered paradise. I presume to say that the food is one of them. Unfortunately for the vegan crowd, many local Hawai’i favorites are meat-based—locals love their seafood and their SPAM. However, on the flip side, Hawai’i has a great diversity of culinary influences, inspired by the many cultures that have shaped the islands, so when it comes to vegan fare, there is a wide variety of options.

One great facet of Hawai’i is the fresh fruit, of which there is abundance and a wide variety. Go to a farmer’s market—there are quite a few of them—and pick up some tropical delights. My favorites include: pineapple (of course), apple bananas (smaller, tangy-er, and sweeter than your typical banana), lychee (spiky and red on the outside, juicy and delicious on the inside), and papaya (cut it in half, spoon out the seeds, then scoop the rest of it into your mouth; you can also use it as a bowl, fill it with some non-dairy yogurt for breakfast or sorbet for dessert).

While fruit is the highlight of my vegan experience, fresh vegetables are also in good supply. Locally-grown greens and tomatoes make fantastic, flavorful salads. Sweet Maui onions are a must-try. Another local favorite is soybeans, or edamame, cooked with sea salt. You pinch the pods and pop the beans into your mouth. So ono! (Delicious in Hawaiian!)

Fresh, home-cooked, medium-grain rice is a staple in Hawai’i. Pretty much every household has a rice cooker. While I enjoy simply eating warm rice with uncooked tofu, drizzled with some shoyu (“soy sauce” in other parts of the U.S.), others may opt for more complex flavors. Vegetable stir-fry with onions, garlic, tofu, and some kind of sauce, eaten over rice, is one of my go-to dishes when cooking at home. In a sweeter incarnation of rice, mochi is a tender, chewy cake made of rice. Sweet and soft, mochi makes a delicious vegan dessert. Just make sure you avoid butter mochi and the pink ones (which use red food coloring and are fairly common).

Along with rice, tofu takes center stage in my experience as a vegan in Hawai’i. It is incredibly versatile, and easy to find. My family typically buys boxes of four blocks at a time, from Costco. One somewhat surprising virtue of tofu is its ability to make great desserts–especially chocolate mousse. I imagine (I have yet to try it) that vegan chocolate mousse would be wonderful when combined with a slice of haupia (How-PEE-a). A type of coconut pudding, Haupia is a traditional Hawaiian dessert. It is rather easy to make at home, but it is also sold in some stores and restaurants. Because it sometimes uses coconut milk as its base, it can be vegan. Check the ingredients when eating out.

Another traditional Hawaiian food that happens to be vegan is poi. This is a purple paste made from ground taro root. While I find it delicious, I have heard it may be an acquired taste. It is a starch, so try eating it with some salty, flavorful protein. A spoonful of sugar also helps it go down (this is how I ate it as a kid, and still do at times).

While it is not descended from ancient Hawaiian tradition, shave ice is a very popular local dessert (and its popularity seems to be spreading across the Mainland, with Kona Shave Ice trucks). Consisting basically of sugary syrup drizzled over shaved ice, this makes for a great post-beach treat. “The Local,” a new shave ice place in Kailua, on O’ahu, serves up syrups made from actual fruit. They offer flavors like lychee and pickled mango that will give you a true taste of the islands, and it is the most distinctive, flavorful ice I have ever had.

Poke (POH-kay) is another dish that is close to many hearts in Hawai’i. While it has come to be associated with the raw fish dish, “poke” comes from a Hawaiian word meaning “to cut crosswise into pieces.” Foodland, a grocery store chain famous for its fresh fish poke, also offers a tofu poke option. While this is tasty, I found that a more-than-satisfactory substitute could be made at home (and have included the recipe along with a photo of the dish!)

Growing up, my family did not eat out very much. For the most part, we bought groceries and cooked food at home. When we did eat out, we typically went to a small restaurant in Kailua or Kaneohe, on the Windward side of Oahu. Just in case you happen to find yourself there, in search of vegan or vegetarian options, here are a couple recommendations.

Saigon Noodle House, located in Enchanted Lake shopping center, is a brightly lit Vietnamese restaurant, with a friendly owner, generous servings, and a vegetarian section of their menu. While I am not sure how many of their offerings are entirely vegan, their tofu vegetable sandwiches and green papaya salads are two tasty options. Ba-le is another Vietnamese chain restaurant, located across the islands, that offers vegetarian options and is known for its delicious bread.

Castle Hospital, also on the Windward side, is run by Seventh-day Adventists. Because of this, their cafeteria is entirely vegetarian. The cafeteria is buffet-style, with a variety of refrigerated and hot plate options.

Windward Community College’s recently opened Uala Leaf Café, located on campus in Kaneohe, offers a vegan option daily and is open Monday-Friday from 11 to 1:30. Their monthly menu can be found online.

Happy vegan eating!

Tofu Poke
1 cube tofu (about 12-14 ounces)
Shoyu (soy sauce) to taste
3 green onion stalks
About a teaspoon of sesame seeds
Garlic powder, chili powder, and ginger powder to taste
Squirt of juice from a local fruit that tastes like a lime (i.e. just use lemon or lime juice)

I cut the tofu into cubes, chopped the green onion stalks, mixed all of the ingredients together gently, and eat it over warm rice. Yum!

Tofu Poke

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