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History of Hawaii’s cuisine

March 8, 2011

Shoyu Chicken, a Hawaiian Favorite

I’m back from Hawaii….. sort of.  Of course it didn’t help that we arrived back just in time for the snow and ice. As I was shivering back home, I found my mind drifting to the lovely island farmer’s markets filled with papaya, avocados, and fragrant flowers. Or a meal at one of the wonderful restaurants that highlights the multi-cultural fusion food that has become an island signature.

Hawaii has an interesting culinary history that has brought about this melting pot of cuisines in the islands. When the first wave of islanders arrived somewhere around 300AD, there was hardly any edible plants or animals on the island. These brave voyagers are believed to have brought around 30 edible plants as well as pigs, poultry and dogs to eat.

They soon found out that the taro they had brought was perfectly suited for the wet and humid conditions of the islands. This became the Hawaiian’s stable along with plenty of fish, coconuts and bananas.

Their diet had some wonderful new introductions when globe roaming discoverers found the islands. Captain Cook introduced goats, English pigs and seeds for onions, melons and pumpkins to the islanders. Soon after that, pineapple was first cultivated there, along with the discovery of the wonderful attributes of sugar cane.

The Captain Cook monument in Hawaii, where he got...cooked.

Pineapple and sugar cane became the king crop for Hawaii in very short order. By the 19th century, most of the island’s lands were planted with these two dominate crops, which were owned and ran by American settlers. They were planting up a storm and using natives to do all the back breaking work.

When the Hawaiian workers had had enough of that, the pineapple and sugar cane barons brought in the Chinese, around 1850, to work the fields. The Chinese brought their woks and stir fries and that were quickly adapted into local cuisine. Next the Portuguese were imported with their love of pork, chili peppers and malasadas. (Sweet deep fried donuts) The Japanese were the next wave of laborers to come, adding yet another rich layer of culinary complexity to Hawaii with their cuisine. (Which is the most influential in Hawaii)

Spicy dishes and meat turnovers were contributed by the fiery Puerto Ricans immigrants. The Filipinos were close on their heels, bringing adobo style and garlicy rich dishes to the strata of Hawaiian fare. Last but not least, the Vietnamese laborers were brought over right before the sugar and pineapple industries went belly up, adding lemongrass, coconut milk and ginger to the fusion.

Mix all those cultures together with the local produce and you get Hawaiian cuisine. There is nothing like it. Some of the popular dishes are Kalua pork, Poké (raw tuna mixed with sesame oil, soy sauce, green onions and seaweed), The Loco Moco (breakfast dish consisting of rice, hamburger patties, fried eggs and brown gravy). Or how about the Spam Musubi (spam layered with sticky rice and wrapped with nori) and Haupia pudding (coconut pudding cut into squares that look like soap).

One of my personal favorite dishes of Hawaii is the Shoyu chicken, a “plate lunch” staple. “Plate lunches” are a quintessential part of the cuisine of Hawaii.  The idea likely came from the Japanese immigrants who would take cold rice and a left over meat to the fields for lunch. Plate lunches usually consist of a scoop or two of rice, macaroni salad and an entrée like Kalua pork or Shoyu chicken.

This recipe I am sharing with you is jazzed up a bit. The traditional Shoyu Chicken doesn’t have sake or Chinese five spice powder added to it, so those ingredients are considered optional. Yet, I highly suggest you add them since they add another depth to the dish. Enjoy the taste of the islands and Me ke aloha pau ole “with best wishes without end”

Shoyu Chicken

½ cup of low sodium shoyu (soy sauce)

½ cup of brown sugar

Or ½ cup of honey

½ cup of chicken broth or water

2 tablespoons of sake (optional)

3-6 cloves of garlic, finely minced

2 tablespoons of fresh ginger, grated fine (skins on)

1 teaspoon of Chinese 5 spice powder

Hot sauce such as Sriracha to taste

5 pounds of chicken thighs

Green onions and sesame seeds for garnish

First off and very importantly put on some Hawaiian music. Whisk together the soy sauce through the hot sauce in a large bowl. (If you want to skin the chicken thighs here, go ahead. Traditionally Shoyu Chicken is cooked with the skin on.) Add the thighs to the marinade and stick in the fridge for about a half hour, up to an hour.

Heat up the oven to 350 degrees. Get out a nice BIG baking pan and pour the chicken in the pan marinade and all. Turn the meaty side of the chicken thighs down. Pop in the oven an cook for about 30 -40 minutes, turning the chicken 3 or 4 times. Turn up the oven to 450 degrees the last 5-10 minutes and brown the chicken, meaty side up. Sprinkle with green onions and sesame seeds and serve with brown rice. Aloha! (This dish can also be grilled with delicious results!)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2011 4:29 am

    I love the suggestion of cooking with Hawaiian music on! I have to do that sometime, especially if I make this shoyu chicken dish! Looks ono!

  2. April 13, 2011 4:00 am

    Hi, This is a great post. I love learning about history and culture. Here it was good to know about Hawaiian cuisine. Thank you.

  3. December 31, 2011 6:14 am

    “mahalo” ..I will be making your recipe soon! I like your write up and comments, much appreciated:) I made hulk-huli chicken last night for my guests but your recipe looks awesome!

  4. John permalink
    May 19, 2012 6:39 am


  5. Rosemarie Glatz permalink
    June 5, 2012 4:57 pm

    This sounds delicious! I will have to give it a try. We used to live in HI and my mom makes Shoyu Chicken differently. Is THIS the ‘traditional’ island style?

    • ziabaki permalink*
      June 5, 2012 5:14 pm

      No this is not traditional. I like to bake my chicken but most Shoyu Chicken is cooked in a pot on the stove. Thanks for coming by!

  6. Karla Guillén Llereta permalink
    October 21, 2015 2:23 pm

    I´m studying english and my teacher told us to prepare an essay about my favorite cuisine. I’m from Peru, but I’d like to learn about other cultures. And I liked your cuisine.

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