The Plate Lunch Tradition in Hawaii

To experience island history firsthand, take a seat at one of Hawaii’s ubiquitous "plate lunch" eateries, where you’ll be served a segmented plate piled with a protein—usually in an Asian-style preparation, like beef teriyaki—two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and maybe a pickled vegetable condiment. On the sugar plantations, immigrant workers from many different countries ate together in the fields, sharing food from their kaukau tins, the utilitarian version of the Japanese bento (a divided box filled with savory items). From this stir-fry of people came the vibrant pidgin language and its equivalent in food: the plate lunch.

At beaches and public parks you will probably see locals eating plate lunches from nearby restaurants, stands, or trucks. Favorite combos include deep-fried chicken katsu (rolled in Japanese panko flour and spices), marinated beef teriyaki, and miso butterfish. Saimin, a noodle soup with Japanese fish stock and Chinese red-tinted barbecue pork, is a distinctly local medley. Koreans have contributed spicy barbecue kalbi ribs, often served with chili-laden kimchi (pickled cabbage or, sometimes, cucumber). Portuguese bean soup and tangy Filipino pinakbet (a mixed-vegetable dish with eggplant, okra, and bitter melons in fish sauce) are also favorites. The most popular contribution to this genre is the Hawaiian plate, featuring laulau, a mix of meat and fish and young taro leaves, wrapped in ti leaves and steamed, kalua pork and cabbage, lomilomi salmon, and chicken long rice, and haupia (coconut pudding) for dessert.

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