Weeknight Hawaiian with Sheldon Simeon

Your Essential Shopping List for Cooking Hawaiian Food at Home

updated Jun 4, 2021
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Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

If you’re hoping to start cooking Hawaiian food at home, there’s a solid chance you have most of the stuff you need already on hand. Most ingredients can be found in a well-stocked grocery store, with likely just a few items requiring a trip to your nearest Asian market. You can also turn to the internet or online Hawai‘i food retailers like snackhawaii.com or onlyfromhawaii.com.

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

1. Hawaiian Sea Salt

Most of the “Hawaiian” brands of ‘alaea (red salt) you’ll see sold on the mainland are actually processed California sea salts colored with clay powder. Traditional ‘alaea made by native Hawaiian artisans is very expensive to produce and rarely leaves the islands. That said, there are certain brands of commercially produced ‘alaea brands that are very nostalgic for locals, like Hawaiian Pa‘akai Inc., which is sold online. Feel free to use it when making traditional dishes like poke and laulau. Otherwise, substitute kosher salt instead.

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

2. Soy Sauce

Hawai‘i calls soy sauce shoyu, which is the Japanese word for soy sauce. Aloha brand shoyu, which is brewed on O‘ahu, is a smooth and mild soy sauce that will work for all occasions. If you’re unable to find Aloha, I recommend using Yamasa, or if you can’t find that, Kikkoman, as they are both made in the mellower, rounder Japanese style. Some locals even mix Kikkoman with a tiny splash of sugar water to mimic the softer taste of Aloha, but I’ll leave that to your discretion. If you’re looking to make a dish gluten-free or gluten-reduced, use tamari soy sauce (which is made without wheat, just soybeans), a style of shoyu that is bolder in flavor.

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

3. Toasted Sesame Oil

Toasted sesame oil is a mainstay in my kitchen pantry. Its toasty, nutty, distinctive character adds a boost of flavor to some of my favorite dishes, including spicy tuna poke (I mix sambal with toasted sesame oil together for big flavor); kalbi (tasty beef short ribs marinate in a mixture of shoyu, sugar, ginger, garlic and toasted sesame oil); and tofu watercress salad (one of my most requested potluck dishes — toasted sesame oil adds so much depth to its vibrant ginger soy vinaigrette).

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

4. Mirin

Mirin is a sweet Japanese cooking wine that is a little lower in alcohol and higher in sugar than sake. It’s often used to add a particular mellow-sweet flavor to Japanese sauces, dressings, and marinades.

Buy: Eden Mirin, $19

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

5. Dried Shiitake Mushrooms

Not only do dried shiitakes last a long time in your pantry, but they also have a more concentrated flavor than the fresh ones. Soak them in hot water until rehydrated, then slice the caps and use as needed. And don’t dump the soaking water — it’s got good flavor that’s a great addition to sauces and stocks.

Buy: Dried Mushrooms, $20

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

6. Dried Cellophane or Glass Noodles

Also known as bean threads, mung bean noodles, or long rice (what they’re called in Hawai‘i), these translucent noodles are usually made from various types of starches like mung bean, tapioca, or arrowroot. They need to be soaked in warm water before using, but not for very long — just until they untangle and soften a bit.

Buy: Long Rice, $1

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

7. ‘Inamona

‘Inamona is roasted and crushed kukui nut (candlenut) that’s often used as a condiment, particularly in poke. A few online retailers sell it, but you can also substitute crushed macadamia nuts.

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

8. Ogo

Ogo is a type of limu (seaweed) known by its brownish-red color and lacy appearance. It’s most commonly added to poke or salads, but its fresh oceanic flavor and crisp texture make it great in sauces and pesto, too. Fresh or frozen ogo is rare on the mainland, so I would suggest ordering dried ogo and rehydrating it according to the package instructions. If you’re unable to find ogo of any kind, the closest substitute would be dried wakame or hijiki seaweed, soaked in water until tender.

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

9. Kamaboko

Kamaboko is a style of Japanese fish cake that’s either sold in pink and white logs or all-white logs. Find them in the refrigerated section at Asian markets, or substitute other types of fish cake or imitation crab.

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

10. Dashi Powder

Dashi, a deeply flavored stock made from dried fish and dried kelp, is a cornerstone of the Japanese kitchen. Think of instant dashi like a dashi bouillon powder. HonDashi is the most common brand. It’s a powerful umami bomb. Used as a seasoning, a pinch sprinkled over any dish will add a deep savoriness. I call it the flavor booster of all flavor boosters. In Hawai‘i, it has long been a pantry secret among home cooks and chefs. Many use it to season fried rice or noodles, create time-saving saimin broth, poach vegetables or seafood, or amp up sauces, dips, and dressings. A small container should last the average household for a while.

Credit: Rachel Cook - Half Acre House

11. Oyster Sauce

Thick, salty, sweet, and deeply savory, oyster sauce is one of my all-time favorite condiments. It’s made with caramelized oyster extract, which gives it a unique umami flavor that doesn’t even taste like seafood. Good oyster sauce is worth tracking down, so look for brands labeled “premium oyster sauce,” like Lee Kum Kee. Store opened bottles in the fridge.