Come on a delicious adventure across Hawaiʻi Island, from locally-grown farmer’s markets to rural coffee houses, there’s something for every taste. And the stories run deeper than the food on your plate.

Let’s be real, Hawaiʻi isn’t exactly known for its cuisine. Surf culture? Yes. Paradisiacal coastlines? Heck yeah. Jason Momoa? Definitely. But the culinary exploits of the archipelago tend to fly under the international radar. 

But discerning travel foodies will know that one of the best ways to get to know a place is to eat your way through its food scene. And exploring Hawaiʻi Island’s gastronomy is like taking the most immersive, delicious lesson in Hawaiian history. 

Every dish has a story to tell. The chicken pasteles you’re chowing down on? They’re straight out of Puerto Rico, brought over with the 5000 immigrants who came to work the sugar plantations. The pipi kaula (rope beef) you’re snacking on?

The paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) used to munch on these while driving their cattle. Wondering why kalo (taro) is on every menu? It’s a sacred ingredient, considered to be the source of all life here in Hawaiʻi. 

You could spend hours, days, weeks eating your way around Hawaiʻi Island, thanks to its diverse climates and rich cultural history, but for brevity – we did the snacking for you. And these are our six must-eats on Hawaiʻi Island.

Day 2 - Hamakua Harvest & Food Trucks, Matt Horspool, tayla gentle, hawaii, shaka, aloha

Mediterranean at Meridia

Mediterranean food in Hawaiʻi? You didn’t read that wrong. The kitchen crew at Meridia, situated within the luxe Westin Hāpuna Beach Resort, are working gastronomic wonders fusing classic Med ingredients with hyper local produce (we’re talking herbs from the rooftop garden and oysters from the neighbourhood over).

With Chef Junior Ulep at the helm, the menu is interesting, innovative and particularly resourceful. Highlight? A paella that swaps the traditional Spanish chorizo for a smokey wild boar sausage. It’s delicious.

‘I just love the art of [cooking],’ says Chef Junior. ‘Coming from Hawaiʻi, every kid here helps with the lūʻau, or goes to a potluck and brings something.

It’s all about food here. Hawaiʻi is a melting pot – Chinese, Filipino, Korean – that’s how we got the food in the first place!’

Chef Junior talks with a passion for food that’s unmatched and infectious. ‘Everybody has a spoon in my kitchen, everyone is tasting, all of the time.’ And you can tell, because every dish on Chef’s menu is a standout.

Kalo, and Lots of It

The small but mighty taro, also known as kalo, is so much more than a root vegetable here in Hawaiʻi. It’s a sacred food source dating back thousands of years that’s widely considered to be the source of life.

So it should come as no surprise that kalo features heavily on menus all around the island, from kalo fries and kalo pancakes to kalo balls in bubble tea.

A must-eat kalo experience is Aunty Peaches poi (mashed kalo) balls, served straight out of her roadside caravan in Waimea.

When asked about the recipe, Aunty told us it was a 19-year secret. But from what we could tell, Aunty flash fries her poi balls in scalding oil to create a sweet golden dumpling. Admittedly, they’re not dissimilar to donuts but we don’t recommend calling them that.

That said, if you want a donut–definitely treat yourself to a malasada (Hawaiʻi’s ultimate donut – with Portuguese roots) from a nearby roadside stand. 


Day 2 - Hamakua Harvest & Food Trucks, Matt Horspool, tayla gentle, hawaii

Authentic Poke at ʻUmeke’s

Ask any local where to go for a serve of traditional poke and the answer will almost always be ‘ʻUmeke’s And it’s ʻUmeke’s (which means ‘bowl’ in Hawaiian language) for good reason.

Headed up by Chef Nakoa Pabre, a bowl of poke here is fresh, award-winning, and the fish is always the star, whether it’s tuna (ʻahi), or salmon. 

Poke, which roughly translates to ‘slice/dice’, is a raw fish dish that dates all the way back to the early Hawaiian ancestors.

According to Chef Nakoa, it doesn’t get more traditional than poke. ‘We never want to mask the fish,’ he says, ‘we want our poke to taste like the ocean.’

Day 5 - Deep Sea Fishing & Poke, fish, Matt Horspool, tayla gentle, hawaii

To do that, he hand mixes a bowl of diced tuna with kukui nuts, a local seaweed, a dash of sesame oil and a good sprinkling of salt. ‘The salt is really the key,’ he explains.

And it’s obvious he’s doing something right, because when we visit it’s 3:30 pm on a weekday and the place is packed with regulars. 

Morning Market at Hāmākua Harvest

With panoramic views to the ocean, the Hāmākua Harvest market is quite possibly the most scenic farmers market in the world.

And then there’s the produce itself – locally-sourced from every corner of the island, and with a congregation of food trucks to whet every appetite, a morning here is a morning well spent on Hawaiʻi Island. 

But Hāmākua Harvest is so much more than the weekly Saturday market, it’s part of a broader agriculture hub on a mission to promote rural, sustainable farming and help educate the community around regenerative practices. 

‘We say it’s a farmers market, but it’s really a community,’ says Tanner, president of the organisation. ‘Farmers are an important part of our community, and the world, and we need to be growing and supporting them.’ 

To do that, the market accepts government benefits, encourages locals to become members and earn market discounts, and actively makes sure money goes back into farmers’ pockets.

Not to mention they’ve got some of the best pasteles (a type of tamal wrapped in steamed banana leaves) and laulau (pork wrapped in taro leaves) on the island. 


Day 2 - Hamakua Harvest & Food Trucks, Matt Horspool, tayla gentle, hawaii

Wake up with Mountain View’s Koana Coffee

Tucked away in sleepy Mountain View village, about 20 minutes out of Hilo and close to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, is Koana Coffee. It’s also known as the ‘best coffee shop in Hawaiʻi state’ (and that’s a fact).

If you’re stopping by for a brew, don’t expect Starbucks – you won’t be getting anything grande or whipped here.

Founder Brian Chi-Chiang Lo established his coffee house as sit-in and pour-over only (besides his super indulgent spiced hot chocolate blend). 


Day 8 - Hilo, coffee, Matt Horspool, tayla gentle, hawaii


Housed in the village’s old theatrette, and fit out with recycled timbers, Koana makes you feel immediately at home. ‘We wanted it to feel like your living room,’ says Brian.

‘We’re the only cafe in the whole state to stock solely Hawaiian products. All of our beans come from local roasters, or we roast them ourselves.’

Brian’s coffee house also has an extended community centre next door where they hold free-to-feed events for locals and run live-drawing classes.

‘We operate Hawaiian style here, everyone shares duties,’ he says, ‘we believe in balance and community.’ Oh, and supremely good coffee. 

Matt Horspool, tayla gentle, hawaii

Drink Local and Sustainable at Ola Brew Co and CanoeHouse

Are you a beer or a cocktail person? Doesn’t matter,  the island has gold stars in both. A stop at Ola Brew is a must, and it’s easily done considering they’ve got taprooms in both Hilo and Kona.

The cool thing about Ola is they’re on a mission to encourage growth in Hawaiʻi’s agricultural economy by using local ingredients in their handcrafted specialty brews.

We’re talking things like lilikoʻi (passionfruit) lime IPA, tulsi berry hard tea and dragonfruit lemonade. Yes, please.

Then you’ve got CanoeHouse, perhaps the most idyllic sundowner spot on the island. Located at Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection and situated right on the beach, generations of locals have gathered here to share meals and stories.

In fact, this 32-acre property was once the cherished land of Hawaiian royalty. So you know you’re dining in good company. 

The CanoeHouse menu embodies the Hawaiian connection between the land and the sea, while also celebrating the Japanese influence of modern Hawaiʻi.

Think scallop sashimi with yuzu kosho and smoked pork jowl with mustard miso, all washed down with a lilikoʻi martini.

According to executive chef, Mark Libunao, everybody has a story about CanoeHouse. He says his role is to preserve the memories and experiences people have, to hold true to the history of this iconic restaurant.


Day 4 - Heli Ride + Canoe House, cocktail, bartender, Matt Horspool, tayla gentle, hawaii


That’s the thing about eating on Hawaiʻi Island – it’s all about the stories. Whether it’s a decades-old poi ball recipe or an oceanfront dining experience, there’s a bounty of sustainable, traditional, locally-sourced, and downright ʻono (delicious) experiences to be had here.

Just make sure you arrive with an empty stomach. 


Want more aloha? There’s more Hawaiʻi to experience, go now.


Photography by Matt Horspool Photography