The iconic dish of the state of Hawaii is not so much a dish as it is a way of eating and that’s why it has a funny name — “plate lunch.” Now, the exact foods on the plate vary from purveyor to purveyor, and from day to day, but the plate lunch is basically a gathering of rice, macaroni salad, possibly other starches, and one or two proteins all together on a plate. There are no “sides.” The whole lunch is — once again — all together on a plate.
“In modern Hawaii, practically everybody has plate lunch for lunch,” I was told by Kai Cowell, a Philippine-born Honolulu chef who came to Hawaii to live and work over 40 years ago. “Plate lunch is beloved by the native population, also by residents who came from other places, and now by tourists. Tourists don’t feel they’ve ‘done’ Hawaii unless they’ve had plate lunch.
“Oh sure, it’s just lunch,” Cowell says, ”but everyone realizes that it’s also functioning as a metaphor for Hawaii.”
A dip into the history reveals why.
Plate lunch goes back to the 1880s, a very active decade in Hawaii for the production of sugar from cane and for the harvesting and export of pineapples. A labor force was needed, most of which was gathered from not-so-far-away Asian countries, such as Japan, China and the Philippines.
“The migrant workers,” Cowell told me, “would bring foods from home, to the field, for lunch, where workers from different cultures would share things.”
Probably the most important influence here was Japanese. The workers brought their traditional bento boxes, which had different compartments for different kinds of food. The idea caught on.
“Soon,” Cowell says, “the workers from all those Asian cultures were bringing bento-ized lunches from home with different kinds of foods on the same plate.”
As the years rolled by, chefs realized that there was profit to be made by rolling food trucks up to the plantation fields offering a similar lunch to the workers that they didn’t have to prepare at home.
“The next step was when plate lunch really took off,” notes Cowell. “Some of the workers themselves saw profit potential in the plate lunch business. Plantation families started opening holes-in-the-wall, away from the plantations, where other Hawaiians could enjoy plate lunches — either at drive-in places, or sitting down inside a very humble restaurant.”
The market for plate lunch was Hawaiian, so the very native poi, a mash of taro root, was part of the carbohydrate mix at these places.
But time marched on. The widely diverse population of Hawaii developed a taste for plate lunch, which means that the plates themselves evolved. What has been standard for almost a hundred years now is two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad — which goes well with the proteins and appeals to many palates — and the proteins themselves, usually with some kind of gravy, and usually drawn from Asian cuisines.
Saunter up to a plate lunch truck today or drive through the wildly popular Rainbow Drive-In in Honolulu, and you’ll probably see the following proteins on offer, each with its own origin:
— Kalua Pork, an oven-roasted version of the whole pig that’s cooked in the ground at luaus
— Loco Moco, hamburger patties topped with a fried egg and brown sauce
— Lau Lau, fish and meat steamed together in a ti leaf
— Tonkatsu, the great Japanese fried pork cutlet coated with panko crumbs; can also be made with chicken
— Beef Teriyaki, usually called “beef ter”
— Shoyu Pork, a specialty of Okinawa, pork braised in soy sauce
— Char Siu Pork, a Cantonese roast pork
— Chicken Adobo, the classic Filipino stew, always made with vinegar
— Kalbi, Korean BBQ short ribs
— Linguica, the popular Portuguese sausage
You may be wondering why a European dish is on this list. It’s because workers from Portugal also came during the plantation days. That’s the kind of place Hawaii is, with multiple populations crammed together, and that’s what plate lunch is — a metaphor for one of the most successful multi-cultural populations on Earth.
Cowell, whose major business is supplying spice blends to restaurants, through her company Kaiulani Spices, marvels at the across-the-board popularity in Hawaii today of plate lunch.
“You’ll even see ladies who are more at home on Rodeo Drive eating plate lunch,” Cowell says.
But there’s good reason to wonder if the Rodeo Drive ladies finish their plate lunches.
“Well, to be honest,” Cowell says, “lots of food is a tradition here in Hawaii. Plate lunch is an enormous lunch, portion-wise. Why does every plate lunch include two scoops of rice? Simple! One is not enough.”
Cowell will be bringing her own version of plate lunch to the Flavored Nation event in St. Louis in October, when chefs from each of the 50 states will carry their iconic dishes to the center of the country. And what will be on Kai’s plate lunch? The protein will be her version of Kalua Pork seasoned with Chinese five-spice powder, red Hawaiian salt, thyme and rosemary, smoke and ti leaves. Her rice will have pineapple in it and yes, of course, there’ll be macaroni salad. Lots of it!
— David Rosengarten is content director for FLAVORED NATION. He has won a James Beard Award for his cookbook “It’s ALL American Food,” and another Beard Award for his newsletter, “The Rosengarten Report.” Rosengarten appeared in the first show on the Food Network, and went on to appear in approximately 2,500 Food Network shows, including his cooking show “TASTE.” A Flavored Nation event, featuring iconic dishes and the chefs and restaurants that make them from each of our 50 states, will be held Oct. 27-29 in St. Louis, Missouri. Find out more at Find out more at flavorednation.com.