The Best Snacks and Drinks to Buy at a Hawaii Supermarket
Island goods and grub abound on the isles’ aisles.
Reflective of the many cultures that have made a home in Hawaii, the archipelago’s supermarkets brim with a smorgasbord of pantry staples, prepared foods, expansive seafood selections, and plenty of specialty snacks.
When I moved to Hawaii from the East Coast shortly after graduating from college, I hadn’t ever visited before and I didn’t yet have a job lined up. I initially moved in with friends in Aiea, a residential area about 10 miles from Waikiki—home to the renowned stretch of beach where most first-time tourists land. But far from the high-rise hotels filled with out-of-towners, I lived amongst locals, frequenting the same supermarkets where they shopped, and getting schooled in Hawaii’s culinary culture.
Eventually I landed a gig as an office temp at a financial services company, sitting behind a computer in a towering building in Downtown Honolulu. While I spent more time in business attire than a bikini during the workdays, the location gave me a chance to go on lunchtime excursions to Chinatown nearby. The district, now home to many of Honolulu’s most celebrated and innovative restaurants like Fête and The Pig and the Lady, remains one of my favorite neighborhoods on the island.
I explored dive bars, local noodle joints, and Chinatown’s many vibrant markets, discovering plenty of things this Jersey girl had never seen before: deep-hued dried strips of skipjack tuna known as aku to red, prickly skinned rambutan to the ridge-shelled delicacy ‘opihi, a.k.a. a limpet or marine mollusk, which are native to the local waters.
At both the neighborhood markets and the large-scale grocery stores, it was the snacks that I’d be most likely to indulge in. Sweet or savory, freshly whipped-up or vacuum-sealed, locally made or imported from Asia, here are the snacks and drinks to stock up on during your next visit to a Hawaiian supermarket.
Our favorite Hawaiian snacks and drinks
Plucking a bag of briny dried squid might not be your usual snack move, but trust me: You’re gonna love ’em. The squid is shredded and seasoned, and it has a bit of a chewy, jerky-like texture. Munching on them as you would pretzels or chips is a fine way to go, but you can also sprinkle them into stuff like soups. Or do as the native Hawaiians do and eat it with poi, an island staple made from pounded taro root.
This one’s a kitchen staple you never knew you needed. Named for the Maui valley in which it was first grown, lilikoi is Hawaiian for passion fruit—that seedy, soft-pulp orb with perfectly sweet-but-tart flavor and tons of antioxidants. Use it as an amped-up butter for your toast, spread it atop chicken or fish, bake it into cakes and cookies, make it a pancake topping, or whisk it with some rice vinegar for a quick dressing. I’ve even melted it down to toss on popcorn. Yep, you’re welcome.
Hawaiian Sun and Aloha Maid fruit drinks
There’s a great debate amongst locals (and on Reddit threads and in podcast episodes) about which canned fruit juice-based beverage is better. The facts: Both are made in Hawaii and both offer some of the same tropical flavors, including pineapple-orange and that Hawaiian liquid gold POG (a mix of passion fruit, orange, and guava juices). And, yes, POG is its own juice entirely, famously made by Meadow Gold.
Hawaiian Sun is a bit more mainstream and manufactures a larger array of flavors (including a standout lilikoi lychee). Meanwhile Aloha Maid touts its drinks that are 100% natural. Offerings from both typically only contain about six to eight percent juice, so it’s more of a sugary splurge than a healthy juice, but it’s still a nostalgic sipper that’ll make you feel like a kid…and way better than Capri Sun.
If your only experience with Spam is unwanted email and you’re up for giving the edible version a try, Spam musubi is definitely the way to do it. A quarter-inch slice of the ham product atop a rectangle of rice and wrapped in nori is one of the Aloha State’s most iconic snacks.
Musubi is modeled after Japanese onigiri, a rice ball that’s traditionally filled with something sour or salty like pickled plum or cod roe. Many credit Barbara Funamura as its inventor of Spam musubi as we know it: layered with crispy slices of Spam, usually-pan fried in its own fat, glazed with a flavorful soy or teriyaki sauce, and then placed atop molded, sometimes furikake-dusted, rice. The result is an umami-packed, hand-held treat that you can take on the go. You’ll never think of Spam the same way again. Promise.
While coffee is not actually native to Hawaii, beans have been growing there for hundreds of years since Chief Boki, the governor of Oahu at the time, first brought coffee plants from Brazil in the 1800s, initially planting them in Oahu’s Manoa Valley before others took seedlings to both Kauai and the Island of Hawaii with more success. The latter produces the fabled Kona coffee, grown on steep swaths of mineral-rich volcanic slopes within the island’s Kona District, with a slightly higher elevation that allows for a microclimate of cooler air and conditions perfect for bean growing. It’s arguably become one of the world’s most renowned coffee-growing regions, with more than 600 coffee farms on the island, most small, family-run operations. The end product is known for a fruity and nutty flavor profile, but make sure to look for 100% Kona Coffee versus a blend, which may only use a small percentage of Kona-grown beans.
Li hing mui candy
Li hing mui sweets may look like your average gummy bears and sour candies but look closely and you’ll see the electric orange-hued exterior. A variety of li hing mui candies and dried fruits are tossed in a pickled plum powder—made from ground dried plums—giving the already sweet treats an extra tangy boost. Most markets offer them bagged, while others may stock them as bulk candy in jars sold by the pound. Bonus tip: Grab a bag of the powder on its own, which you’ll soon find out has a multitude of uses, from muddling it into margaritas to sprinkling it on fresh fruit.
As musubi is to Japanese onigiri, manapua is to Chinese char siu bao, Cantonese buns traditionally steamed and filled with a saucy barbecue pork mixture. Hawaiians have put their own spins on the savory snack, and you might find them baked or even fried, then filled with an array of delish fillings that go way beyond pork. Think garlic chicken or Okinawan sweet potato and even some out-there offerings like pizza and a sweet version stuffed with Oreos. Whatever you choose, the fat and fluffy Hawaiian go-to snack is sure to satisfy.
Hawaiian Hurricane popcorn
Full disclosure: I’m a popcorn fanatic. But not a popcorn purist. So I’m always up for new flavors and toppings, which is exactly where Hawaiian Hurricane shines. The popcorn is already the perfect balance of buttery-and-salty, but the mochi-nori version tosses the corn with furikake seasoning and a mochi rice cracker crunch. And if you want more heat, you can go for the spicy kim chee offering that still includes the nori and mochi. Amazing.
Since the poke “trend” exploded on the mainland several years back, you can find poke seemingly anywhere and, somewhat upsettingly, over kale and quinoa. But we’re talking about real-deal Hawaiian poke. The kind you pick up by the pound in the deli case. Find the right spot and you’ll often have your pick of dozens of styles, sauces, and seafood options. In addition to traditional shoyu, you’ll find ahi mixed with creamy hot-and-spicy versions, spiked with avocado, and layered with limu (native seaweed). Go beyond tuna with thinly sliced octopus called tako, or even mussel poke. And while many supermarkets use more affordable frozen fish, they often give you the option to pay extra for poke made from fresh-caught fish, too.
Where to shop for Hawaiian products
Most grocery stores will have many of the Hawaiian snacks and treats you seek. Hell, even Walmart is chock-full of souvenir chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and guava-kissed shortbread cookies shaped like pineapples. Foodland, though, is a local supermarket chain in Hawaii popular for its wide range of Hawaiian goods—poi (pounded taro), lau lau (pork, fish, or chicken wrapped in ti leaves), huli huli seasoned chicken from the butcher counter.
For a cold case filled with various poke, Tamura’s is among the best shops you can visit. Another local chain, Tamura’s isn’t a huge grocery store, but it’s what’s inside that counts. If you’re also looking for local beer and spirits, wine, and a cigar, you’ll find it here. Weekly farmers markets hosted in communities throughout the islands are likewise a good place for fresh, local eats—you’ll find amazing fruit and preserved goods (yup, like that silky lilikoi butter) at these fleeting spots.