Plate Lunches

Our Favorite Foods

Plate Lunches

Krystal Kakimoto | Feb 13, 2017

Hawaiʻi's Favorite Comfort Food

Ahh, plate lunch—two scoops steamed rice, one scoop mac salad, and a main of your choice. Whether at the beach or at the office, the plate lunch has become a staple in our lunchtime routine because it's affordable, quick, easy to eat, and dependable. Most locals will know their favorite spot, or what to order and where. Although the plate lunch has become such a familiar part of our lives, many are unaware of the fascinating origins this cultural icon has in our state's history.

The plate lunch has been around since the days of the Hawaiian plantation era. During the 19th century, the sugarcane and pineapple industries were booming in Hawai`i and there was high demand for men to work in their fields. Thousands of Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Portuguese immigrants sailed to Hawai`i in hopes of a better life as field workers. With them, they brought their unique cultural traditions and beloved cuisine of their homelands, which would eventually mix and blend to become the plate lunch that we know and love today.

The plate lunch is reminiscent of the Japanese bento—single serving meals meant to be eaten while away from home. Bento are usually a layer of rice topped with various things-- broiled fish, tempura (batter fried fish, shrimp, or vegetables), tsukemono (pickled vegetables)—all aesthetically arranged in a bento box. When Japanese immigrants came to Hawai`i to work on the plantations, they brought with them the practice of packing bento to eat in the fields during their lunch breaks.

With them, they brought their unique cultural traditions and beloved cuisine of their homelands,
which would eventually mix and blend to become the plate lunch that we know and love today.

They would fill their metal lunchboxes, also known as Kau Kau tins, with a layer of rice at the bottom of the container. Over the rice, they packed whatever was available—from canned meats to fried chicken or even scrambled eggs. Lunchtime brought a much-needed break from the strenuous and exhausting work in the plantation fields. Workers would sit in the shade of trees and open their lunches, sharing parts of their precious meal with the group. This generous act not only created lifelong friendships, but also helped to shape what we know today as local Hawaiian cuisine.

With the end of the plantation era, more and more people began seeking work in cities and towns, which led to the creation of the lunch wagon. These lunch wagons followed their customers by traveling to areas with office workers, and peddled everything from sandwiches to soup, but their most popular item was the plate lunch. The plate lunch consisted of two scoops of hot white rice, one scoop of Hawai`i's beloved macaroni salad, and a hearty serving of a hot entrée of their choice. The menu selection varied from day to day, depending on what the lunch wagon owner wanted to cook. They borrowed recipes from all the different ethnic groups in Hawai`i—everything from Japanese beef teriyaki to Korean kalbi ribs to Filipino pork adobo. With entrées ranging from Hawaiian kalua pig to Chinese char siu pork, people were sure to find their favorite meal available at the lunch wagons.

There were also some popular plate lunch entrees created, unique to HawaiʻiMeat jun, thinly sliced beef dipped in egg batter and fried, is a favorite entrée. It was inspired by the Korean jeon dish that features thin, egg-based pancakes.

The plate lunch has remained a steadfast mealtime option for decades,
due to its deep-rooted history in all the cultures that unite this beautiful state.

Served at nearly every plate lunch establishment and even some higher-end restaurants around town, loco moco typically consists of a bed of hot white rice, a ground beef hamburger patty drenched in brown gravy, all topped with an egg cooked to your liking (but usually sunny side up). This famous local dish was created at Lincoln Grill in Hilo, Hawai`i in 1949, when a group of teenagers from a nearby sports club came in asking for something quick, inexpensive, and delicious. Today, loco moco is still a beloved local dish and many variations exist, including swapping out the white rice for fried rice or topping the dish with chili, bacon, or even kalua pig!

Macaroni Salad

Hawaiʻi’s honorary sixth food group is macaroni salad. While its roots do not trace back to the plantation days, like many of the items found on the plate lunch menu, it has become an essential in plate lunch culture. Macaroni salad grew out of creamy potato salad, which was popular in Europe and the mainland United States during the early 1900s. Many American housewives swapped out potatoes for the less expensive elbow pasta. Rounded out with generous portions of mayonnaise and black pepper, chopped onions, or even canned tuna, macaroni salad became a popular side dish in many mainland American homes.

During the 1920's it was common practice for luxury hotels in Hawai`i to hire chefs from the mainland to create exciting, high-class menus for their upscale restaurants. These mainland chefs brought with them macaroni salad, and it was an instant success in the islands. It soon became available at eateries other than just extravagant hotel restaurants. Macaroni salad is delicious on its own and comforting to eat, while also helping to balance out the other flavors of the main dish options found in popular plate lunches.

A Timeless Comfort

Over the years, much has changed in the Aloha state. New developments are always on the rise, changing Hawaiʻi's landscape and skylines. Trends will come and go. However, the plate lunch has remained a steadfast mealtime option for decades, due to its deep-rooted history in all the cultures that unite this beautiful state. Beloved by all, across all ages and ethnicities, the plate lunch is not only how Hawaiʻi likes to eat, it's a reflection of who we are.

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