Hawaii is host to its fair share of truly outstanding vegan eateries, to say nothing of the countless veggie-friendly establishments that make room at the table for everyone. What you don’t hear about though are the vast offerings of plant-based delights just beyond the beaten path. Navigating through the immense dining scene in Honolulu has led me to many unexpected but delicious discoveries, in places that don’t necessarily cater to vegans. If you’re traveling with omnivores, in search of more “authentic” local eats, or just craving something different, here are just a few of the quick and easy accidentally vegan snacks I’ve stumbled across so far. These can be found throughout the entire island, but I’ve provided a few suggestions for my favorite haunts. No matter the place or time, the key to any happy culinary exploration is to always ask questions!
The classic beach-going Hawaiian treat, perfect for a hot day- Which is pretty much every day here, even in the dead of winter. Every stand carries a literal rainbow of sugar-based syrups to douse mountains of crushed ice with, so sticking with the basics still leaves you with dozens of flavors to choose from. Waiola Shave Ice and Matsumoto’s Shave ice remain local favorites, but for my tastes, Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha is the one to beat. Where else will you find kale-spinach shave ice and house-made sweetened adzuki beans, no less?
(Cautions: Avoid “creamy” flavors and ice cream toppings.)
A distinct and entirely different dessert than shave ice, snow ice is also a sweet frozen snack, but made of paper-thin ribbons of ice flakes already infused with flavor, no syrup required. This creates a sensational, light texture that’s incredibly easy to eat, even after a big meal. The technique actually comes from Taiwan but has taken root in Hawaii, particularly in downtown Honolulu. Frostcity is a small chain that always offers at least three or four vegan flavors on any given day.
(Cautions: Always seek out plain fruit flavors and ask about the base; it’s often made with dairy. If the proprietor can’t confirm or deny, assume the worst.)
Edamame & Soybean Poke
A popular pupu (appetizer) at dives and fine dining establishments alike, seasonings start at the most basic sprinkle of sea salt but these humble bean pods are rarely requested so plain. Garlic edamame, studded with plentiful chunks of coarsely minced garlic guarantee you the most powerful but worthwhile dragon breath you’ve ever experienced. Spicy (or sweet-and-spicy) edamame adds either crushed red pepper flakes or a drizzle of sriracha into the mix. It’s a real treat when you can find them dressed up poke-style, in sesame oil, soy sauce, scallions, and sliced sweet onions. The beans pictured above are a specialty from the newly opened Izakaya Torae Torae: Teriyaki truffle edamame.
(Cautions: Garlic edamame are sometimes sauteed in butter, and Asian variants can occasionally include a splash of fish sauce. Ask if you have any doubts.)
Hailing from China and not the Southern US, Hawaiian boiled peanuts are often enhanced with a hint of star anise around here, but are just as frequently prepared with nothing more than salt and water. Found in poke shops and the deli section of most supermarkets, these tender, toothsome goobers always satisfy and are absolutely dirt-cheap. I have yet to meet a boiled peanut that disagreed with me, but I hear that the best come from Alicia’s Market.
(Cautions: None! These are always a safe and tasty option.)
Another Chinese import, crack seed is a category of snack that covers all sorts of preserved fruits, some dried and some wet, that typically have a pronounced sweet, sour, and salty taste. Crack seed stores also carry salty snacks like mochi balls and shoyu peanuts, in addition to regular dried fruits and fruity candies. Big glass apothecary jars line the floors and walls of these closet-sized spaces and everything is bought by the 1/4, 1/2, or full pound. If you ask very nicely, most store keepers will give you little tastes to try before you buy.
(Cautions: Just about all of the traditional crack seed options are coated with li hing mui powder, which contains aspartame. Proceed at your own risk.)
Also known in some parts as onigiri, the core of these versatile snacks is made up of tightly packed sushi rice, wrapped up in toasted nori. These plain offerings are good lunchbox filler, albeit unexciting in the flavor department. Common veggie-friendly variants that are readily available in bento shops and even convenience stores include fillings made up of kombu, umeboshi, and takuan. These staples will pop up frequently at Shirokiya and yes, even select 7-Eleven stores. Spam musubi are hands-down the top sellers around here, and you may be happily surprised to find a number of vegan renditions scattered across Oahu. Blue Tree Cafe and Peace Cafe, for starters, both have their own tofu-based take on the classic.
(Cautions: 90% of the traditional fillings you’ll come across are fishy and/or meaty, so make sure you read labels and signs carefully.)
Imagine an acai-banana smoothie thick enough to eat with a spoon that’s topped with granola and sliced bananas, and you’d have yourself a genuine acai bowl. Ice is usually added into the blend for additional bulk and cooling power, and each shop switches up the fruit inclusions and toppings. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a whole salad of blueberries, strawberries, kiwis, and maybe even coconut flakes crowning your icy creation, but even the paired down renditions are worth trying. You really can’t go wrong with this blend, but I’m quite partial to Jewel or Juice‘s regular acai bowl, which is less sweet than many mainstream formulas.
(Cautions: Honey is one of the default toppings, so always ask for your bowl without.)
And to think, I’m just getting started here! Who knows how many other hidden edible treasures are still out there, just waiting to be discovered? The only way to find out is to start searching, so get out there, explore, and taste Oahu!