It turns out that Hawaii diners get a dollop of local history with their two scoops of rice and mac salad. Dating back to the 1880s, the ubiquitous “plate lunch” is said to have its roots among plantation laborers who hailed from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal and other areas.
“Workers needed hearty lunches, and would pile leftover rice and meats into these metal kau kau tins [traditional old Hawaiian lunch boxes],” said Hawaii-based author Kaui Philpotts, who grew up on a plantation above the Pā‘ia Sugar Mill on Maui in the 1940s and ’50s. “A sandwich wasn’t quite going to cut it.”
When the plantation era ended, these carb-loaded lunches remained, thanks in part to early entrepreneurs who had launched lunch wagons in the 1930s, and diners and drive-ins that emerged after World War II.
Consumed regularly by everyone from surfers to businessmen to even former President Barack Obama when he vacationed on Oahu, the plate lunch is simple in form but varied in its elements. Its basis: two scoops of sticky white rice and a side of macaroni salad that’s laden with mayo. The protein portion reflects the mix of cultures and ethnicities in the Islands: kalua pork and laulau (Hawaiian), kalbi and meat jun (Korean), chicken katsu and teriyaki beef (Japanese), pork guisantes and chicken adobo (Filipino).
“The original plate lunch had to have a lot of rice and tons of meat,” Philpotts said chuckling. “And a main thing is that it had no vegetables or greens.”
The macaroni salad component was added later and seemed to bridge many different tastes. Smothered in mayonnaise and sprinkled with a dab of salt and pepper, the mac salad was found to mix well with a piece of protein.
After the kau kau tins, lunches were served on compartmentalized paper plates covered with aluminum foil. The entrees then graduated onto round paper plates with a piece of wax or parchment paper on top, which was bounded by a rubber band—Rainbow Drive-In off Kapahulu Avenue and St. Louis Drive in Kaimukī still serve their plates in this fashion. These days, though, most plate lunch eateries serve up entrees in those all-too familiar white plastic foam clamshells.
“The plate lunch has evolved,” Philpotts said. “In the olden days, the meats were often simple items, like Vienna sausage, hot dogs, Spam or something teriyaki. You didn’t have fish because it would spoil in the heat, which is the same reason why you didn’t have mac salad back then.”
Omelets with green onions and shoyu were also popular, but the ultimate plate lunch was—and still is among local residents—the loco moco: a hamburger patty topped with a sunny-side egg and smothered in gravy; it’s Hawaii’s quintessential comfort food.
Choices today, though, include more gourmet selections, such as furikake-dusted ahi, garlic shrimp, grilled steak and misoyaki Atlantic salmon steak. A healthier plate lunch has also emerged: brown rice substitutes for white, and Nalo Green salad is offered instead of macaroni. But it's still a plate lunch and it's still as popular as when the first plantation laborers packed their lunches in tin cylinders.
"When you come to Hawaii, you've got to at least try a plate lunch," Philpotts said. "It has such a long history that its cultural significance can't be ignored. It literally represents Hawaii's melting pot of flavors ... with two scoops of rice and mac salad on the side."