Is the Malasada the Best Donut Ever?

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Aida Mollenkamp)

Ask locals where to eat in Hawaii and sooner or later you’ll end up talking malasadas. Cakey and airy, yeasty and sweet, crisp and soft — they may just be the best donut ever. But beyond Portuguese bakeries, these donuts are relatively unknown outside of Hawaii.

What Is a Malasada?

In the most basic terms, the malasada is a yeast donut, sans hole. The dough is distinguished from that of other yeast donuts by its egginess and also by the use of milk (often evaporated). The slightly crisp exterior is usually, but not always, coated in sugar, and malasada purists will argue that you should only eat them plain (aka unfilled).

But there are myriad “novelty” variations out there — and I’m all for being an equal-opportunity taster. Many bakeries fill their malasadas with tropical-flavored custards such as haupia (coconut), lilikoi (passionfruit), guava, or pineapple. Macadamia or classic flavors like vanilla and chocolate are also common.

You can find these donuts rolled in cinnamon sugar, too. And if you’re really wanting to go all out, try the versions coated in sweet-salty-tangy li hing mui (salty dried plum) powder.

Portuguese Roots

This local treat is not really all that local. We have the Portuguese to thank for malasadas (and for ukeleles). During the late 19th century, Portuguese plantation laborers from the Madeira and Azores islands flocked to Hawaii — and they brought their donuts with them. Back then, malasadas were made for special occasions; they were especially associated with the preparation for Lent.

(Image credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson)

The Malasada Goes Mainstream

In 1952, Leonard Rego opened Leonard’s Bakery on Kapahulu Street in Honolulu. As he was of Portuguese descent, he decided to try selling malasadas. From the start the fritters were a huge success. In fact, they were so popular, they’ve been frying them up fresh at Leonard’s ever since. To this day, Leonard’s has lines from opening to closing.

Where Get Your Malasada Fix

A ton of places make malasadas across the islands, so you should definitely ask locals for their favorites. You want them to be freshly fried and, as a general rule, the places that specialize in malasadas make them best.

I’m partial to the haupia custard-filled one from Leonard’s, but here are a few other favorites across the state.

Have you ever had a malasada? What’s your most memorable donut experience?