Foods of Hawaii: From Fresh Fruit to Spam and Shave Ice 27 August 2013

Ah Hawaii. Sunshine, tropical breezes, warm temperatures, surfboards, aloha spirit, leis and... Poke? Pronounced “Po-keh,” poke is a common feature on restaurant menus and in the meat case at the grocery store. What is it? Marinated raw fish. It's delicious. And healthy.

Until relatively recently, Hawaii gave new meaning to the idea of “local foods”. Polynesians sailed over thousands of miles of open ocean to populate the Hawaiian Islands 1500-2000 years ago. They did not arrive to the lush tropical paradise of coconut palms and flowers we see in travel brochures. There were certainly fish, but the few native plants were not edible. The Polynesian explorers were prepared; they brought what are referred to as Canoe Plants, which were starter plants for their familiar staples, such as:

  • Taro
  • Sweet potato
  • Ti plant
  • Banana
  • Coconut palm

They also brought animals, notably chickens (jungle fowl) and pigs. For hundreds of years, Hawaiian culture depended on this limited but adequate food supply. The islands were first visited by European explorers in the late 18th Century, setting the stage for the introduction of new foods and food plants, such as pineapple and sugar cane. Chinese and Japanese agricultural workers brought Asian cuisine. Today Hawaiian food combines influences from many cultures. Poke is one example.

* Poke is really very simple. Slice fresh raw fish — ahi tuna is a popular choice — and marinate it with chopped green onion, soy sauce, a dash of sesame oil, salt and other seasonings like seaweed, garlic, chili or chopped kukui nuts. Poke can also be made with octopus, shrimp, clams or salmon.

Because poke is just fish and seasonings, it's high protein and low calorie. Tuna and salmon poke will have significant omega-3 content. Depending on what fish you use, an ounce is about 70-80 calories. It makes a great snack, appetizer or main dish for a quick low calorie meal, along with some fresh vegetables or fruit.

* Poi, from the taro plant, was a staple of ancient Hawaiians. It's prepared by mashing the starchy roots. It can be eaten plain or mixed with mashed fruit like banana or papaya to make a pudding-like dessert. According to the USDA database, a cup of prepared poi has almost 270 calories, is low sugar, low fat and low protein, and a decent source of iron, vitamin C, potassium, vitamin E and niacin.

Most of ancient Hawaiian's protein would have come from fish, pigs and chickens. Coconut is notable for fat content. A cup of plain shredded raw coconut has 280 calories, a whopping 85% from fat. Taro, bananas, sweet potato and other fruit and starchy or leafy plant foods would have rounded out their diet.

* Spam definitely didn't arrive in Hawaii on a canoe. The spicy canned ham product arrived with the US military during World War II. Now Hawaii has the biggest per capita Spam consumption in the US. Spam Loco Moco is available as a local fast food. Here's how to make it:

  1. Fry two thick slices of Spam
  2. Cook two eggs, preferably fried or over easy
  3. Pile the span and eggs on steamed white rice.
  4. Cover with brown gravy and serve.

Here's a very rough estimate of the nutritional impact of that:

  • Almost 700 calories
  • 25 grams protein
  • 40 grams of fat

* Shave Ice similar to a Sno Cone, but according to aficionados, it's better. Shave ice originated in Japan, and Japanese plantation workers brought it to Hawaii early in the 20th Century. It's distinguished from Sno Cones by the ice itself, which is shaved off blocks, so the texture is different. Shaved ice is said to hold the flavored syrups better. There's no end to syrup flavors and shave ice combinations. You can just have the ice and flavored syrup, or have ice cream under the ice. Some traditional recipes call for flavored sweeten condensed milk poured on top, along with azuki beans.

Depending on the size and combinations, a shave ice could range from 300+ calories for a simple syrup-plus-ice variety to 600 or more if you order ice cream and sweetened condensed milk topping. So while visitors should try shave ice, once may be enough if you're watching calories.

* Plate Lunch is another unique part of Hawaiian cuisine that originated in Asia. In the early 20th Century, plantation workers from eastern Asia would bring boxed lunches to work, typically leftover cooked rice and leftover cooked meat. A traditional plate lunch features rice, a seasoned cooked meat and... macaroni salad. Macaroni salad doesn't sound very Hawaiian, and can definitely add calories. Fortunately, most plate lunch venues have lots of other food options to choose from. Here's one great combination: rice, roasted pork, salmon poke and a chopped tomato salad. Plate lunch portions can be large, so calorie counters might rather share than eat the whole thing.

The real nutritional superstars of Hawaii are the fresh local tropical fruits: papaya, mango, pineapple, guava, passion fruit, apple bananas and many others. They're high fiber, filling, loaded with vitamins and minerals, and naturally sweet.

A large papaya has a whopping 475 mg of vitamin C, 1/3rd of the daily potassium requirement, impressive amounts of vitamin A and folate, and 13 grams of fiber. It's a great choice for a really easy and healthy breakfast: slice a ripe papaya in half, dig out the seeds and squeeze some lime juice on top. Eat the papaya right out of the skin with a spoon. Add a container of yogurt and you've got a really easy breakfast, loaded with nutrition.

Healthy eating can be easy in Hawaii, if you focus on fresh local foods and exercise portion control. Papaya and yogurt for breakfast, a plate lunch at one of the local shrimp farms and grilled fish or poke plus vegetables and fresh fruit for dinner is't a bad plan. You can enjoy shave ice too, and cut calories by sharing.

Donna P Feldman MS RDN
Food and nutrition journalist and consultant
http://RadioNutrition.com

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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Foods & Recipes/Fish & Seafood Travel/Regional Foods

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