Hawaiian Plate Lunch Mac Salad

published Jul 29, 2023
Hawaiian Plate Lunch Mac Salad Recipe

This Hawaiian-style mac salad is creamy, with just the right amount of tang (thanks to pickle juice and apple cider vinegar!).

Serves4 to 6

Makes4 1/2 cups

Prep15 minutes

Cook15 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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Overhead photo of Hawaiian Macaroni Salad in wooden bowl
Credit: Meleyna Nomura

Hawaiian-style macaroni salad, or mac salad, isn’t a dish that’s indigenous to the islands. Its  exact origins are a bit murky. Some experts give credit to European plantation bosses, and others to Waikiki resort chefs. But there’s no doubt that despite wherever it came from, it’s become a beloved staple of local-style cooking in restaurants and homes across the islands. 

My grandma Bachan was infamous for her mayo salads — specifically her three-ingredient tuna salad recipe with canned tuna, mayo, and sweet pickle relish. My dad and uncle regularly traded for something else during school lunch, or just simply tossed it out the car window on the way to school in 1950s Kaneohe, Hawai’i. 

Despite this, my dad decided it was a good idea to have my grandmother and grandfather live with us part-time while I was growing up. Even though I was a mayo-averse kid, I was subjected to many of Bachan’s mayo-dressed salads. 

Fortunately, my grandfather was a legitimately good cook. Whenever he graced us with his presence behind the stove, we knew dinner was going to be delicious. This mac salad recipe is based on what he taught me. While I still can’t say I love mayo, he turned me into a deli salad devotee. 

I learned that while mayonnaise is the main ingredient, it isn’t the main flavor. Its fatty, bland base is the perfect canvas for tangy, savory flavors that wrap themselves in and around each fat little tube of pasta. This Hawaiian-style mac salad is the perfect example of the whole being so much greater than the sum of its parts.

Credit: Meleyna Nomura

What Is Hawaiian-Style Mac Salad? 

Hawaiian-style macaroni salad is a creamy blend of well-cooked elbow macaroni, scallions, grated carrot, and a creamy mayonnaise dressing. It differs from pasta salad, as there is no vinaigrette, and the added mix-ins tend to be pretty minimal. No seasonal vegetables, chunks of cheese, herbs, or al dente noodles here. 

As is, this is a basic but flavorful version of mac salad. It’s perfect as a side dish at a barbecue or on any plate lunch. Additional vegetables like thawed frozen peas or finely chopped celery can be added, or go for a spoonful of relish. It’s not uncommon to see surimi (artificial crab), canned tuna, or salad shrimp added. These bumped-up versions are often seen at potlucks or family barbecues.

Potato mac salad is actually a separate thing. It’s exactly what it sounds like: both potatoes and macaroni combined into one salad. You’ll often see chopped hard-boiled eggs added as well; it’s a sort of potato-macaroni-egg salad mash-up that is really just the best of all worlds in one bowl. 

Ingredients You’ll Need for Hawaiian-Style Mac Salad

  • Elbow macaroni: You can’t have mac salad without the mac. Elbows are traditional, and they are cooked well beyond al dente. I’ve tested this with various cooking times, and find 15 minutes to be the sweet spot. After draining the macaroni, rinse it with cold water to stop the cooking. You end up with fat little rainbows that mimic the Rainbow State’s iconic arches.
  • Mayonnaise: Best Foods (Hellman’s if you’re east of the Rockies) is what most households in Hawaii reach for. Skip the Japanese-style Kewpie mayonnaise. While there is a strong Japanese influence in local cooking, Kewpie has its own distinct flavor and is best suited to Japanese potato salad.  
  • Milk: This smooths things out a bit and prevents the salad from being overly gloppy. 
  • Onion: This is a classic addition to Hawaiian-style mac salad. Grating the onion adds a savory flavor that permeates the dressing and flavors the whole bowl.
  • Acid: This is one of the biggest variations you’ll see from recipe to recipe. My grandfather always used briny dill pickle juice. I do the same, plus some apple cider vinegar, which I whisk straight into the dressing (I find the tanginess to be essential). I’ve tested adding it to the pasta, but I actually find it less flavorful and creamy this way.
  • Carrot: Mix-ins can vary, but grated carrot is the one all recipes agree on. 
  • Scallion: Provides color as well as a layered onion flavor.
  • Granulated garlic: Opting for granulated versus fresh garlic provides more of a savory background note than an obvious garlic flavor.

Can I Make Hawaiian-Style Mac Salad Ahead of Time?

Mac salad actually benefits from a bit of a rest in the refrigerator for all of the flavors to come together. An hour is enough, and you can even let it rest overnight if you want. I find the sweet spot to be two to three hours. Just enough time to put it together, put yourself together, then hop in the car to take it with you to share with friends and family. 

What to Serve with Hawaiian-Style Mac Salad

Part of what makes Hawaiian-style mac salad so memorable is how it’s served. If you’re visiting Hawaii, it’s a magical sort of combination of familiar flavors coupled with the relaxation you can only get while on vacation. If you’re local, it’s an everyday food that also conjures up memories of backyard barbecues, get-togethers with friends and family, pupus (a Hawaiian term for appetizers), and potlucks.

You’ll most often see mac salad as a plate lunch accompaniment. It’s served with rice (yes, two starches) alongside classic local-style proteins. The cool, creamy sauce and pasta mix beautifully with the sweet, salty flavors often seen in these main dishes. 

Some of my favorite plate lunch mains are as follows: 

Hawaiian Plate Lunch Mac Salad Recipe

This Hawaiian-style mac salad is creamy, with just the right amount of tang (thanks to pickle juice and apple cider vinegar!).

Prep time 15 minutes

Cook time 15 minutes

Makes 4 1/2 cups

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info


  • 1

    small carrot

  • 2

    medium scallions

  • 8 ounces

    dried elbow macaroni (about 1 2/3 cups)

  • 1/4

    small yellow onion

  • 1 cup

    mayonnaise, preferably Best Foods or Hellman’s

  • 2 tablespoons


  • 1 tablespoon

    plus 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon

    plus 1 teaspoon dill pickle brine

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    granulated garlic

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper


  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Meanwhile, peel, then grate 1 small carrot on the large holes of a box grater (scant 1/2 cup). Finely chop 2 medium scallions (about 3 tablespoons).

  2. Add 8 ounces dried elbow macaroni to the boiling water. Cook until very soft and past al dente, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, make the dressing.

  3. Grate 1/4 small yellow onion on the large holes of a box grater into a large bowl until you have 3 tablespoons. Add 1 cup mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons milk, 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon tablespoon apple cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon tablespoon dill pickle brine, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Whisk to combine.

  4. When the pasta is ready, drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Stir the pasta in the strainer, draining it very well. Add the pasta, carrot, and scallions to the dressing. Toss with a flexible spatula or wooden spoon until evenly coated. The salad will be quite loose and taste quite sharp at this point. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to overnight. Stir again before serving.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.