• Pizza Hawaii-style at the Flatbread Company in Paia, Maui. (Yasmin Noone)Source: Yasmin Noone
Purists be damned: a real pizza menu just isn’t complete without a good old-fashioned Hawaiian pizza, topped with ham and pineapple, a sweet-salty classic that’s equal parts reviled and exalted. But is the Hawaiian pizza actually, er, Hawaiian? And if not, then what do the Hawaiians eat when it’s pizza night?
Yasmin Noone

29 Apr 2016 - 1:37 PM  UPDATED 29 Apr 2016 - 1:57 PM

Pizza-loving Aussies may have grown to cherish the inclusion of the ham and pineapple ‘Hawaiian’ option as a serious staple in modern pizzeria menus, but  the Hawaiian pizza wasn’t born in – or, in fact, anywhere near - the palm-tree adorned archipelago.                                                                           

Actually, it was the invention of a Greek Canadian, Sam Panopoulous, in the early 1960s. His restaurant, Satellite, was one of the first in cleepy Chatham, Ontario, and the savvy restaurateur was keen to launch with a bang. Pizza, still relatively new to Canadians, was an easy choice. As for the ham and pineapple combo? Panopoulous discovered it by accident, and the rest is food history. The recipe stretched throughout the world like mozzarella cheese, and now you’d be hard-pressed to find a pizzeria that doesn’t serve it.

Deliciousness aside, this branding conundrum begs a serious question: if the Hawaiian pizza we know, love and frequently devour doesn’t ‘come’ from Hawaii, what do Hawaiians consider to be the ‘real’ Hawaiian pizza?

My quest for an answer takes me to the Hawaiian hippy-surf village of Paia on Maui’s north shore. Populated by over 2600 Hawaiians, Paia is also home to the Flatbread Company, situated on the main road through town, Hana Highway.

This small pizzeria franchise prides itself on creating pizzas using local recipes and ingredients. In Paia, that means including a ‘real’ Hawaiian pizza on its menu that pays tribute to native cuisine.

"Kalua pork pizza is ‘the’ Hawaiian pizza to get,” says our waitress. We order as recommended. Tempted by the smell of ingredients fusing in the venue’s woodfire pizza oven, we hungrily stare at other people’s piping hot pizzas.

After what feels like a lifetime in pizza years (but really only 15 minutes), our Kalua pork pizza – lashed with homemade garlic oil and pungent organic herb mix – adorns the table. The dough is New York-thin but offers enough texture to bubble and burst pleasingly in random spots.

The homemade, organic mango BBQ sauce tastes like a tropical cocktail, especially when the juicy Maui pineapple makes an appearance (side note: I could happily drink that base mixture with vodka any day).

Scattered between the pulled, smoked free-range shoulder pork, organic red onions and pineapple, is a blend of Hawaiian goat cheeses (goats are a traditional food source), premium whole milk mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

Glenn, our local mate in the know and host for the day, explains that Hawaiians aren’t fond of Canadian ham but are big on pork. So an authentic Hawaiian pizza should feature slow-cooked, smoked pork.

“We normally serve pork with something sweet, generally pineapple, at a luau – a traditional celebration or party,” he says.  

“In order to do that, we put whole pig in an ‘imu’ pit, wrap it in taro leaf, and steam it with a big fire and hot rocks. After the fire dies down, you put the wrapped up pig in the pit with sweet potato, onions and anything else you can grow. You cover it, leave it for eight to 10 hours and steam-cook it underground. When it’s done, you pull it apart.”

The native dish is referred to as Kalua pig or, when wrapped in taro leaves, laulau pork. “Real Hawaiian pizza,” says Glenn, “would never have slices of ham. It’s all about that soft, smoky, melt-in-the-mouth pulled pork.”

Glenn, ever the history-buff, also says that if you want to get technical, an authentic Hawaiian pizza would use a taro base. After all, native Hawaiians - the Polynesians - didn’t farm wheat, but they did farm taro, a popular root vegetable throughout South-East Asia and the Pacific. In fact, it was one of the first vegetables planted in Hawaii. “A taro dough mix would be the true Hawaiian pizza base,” he says.  

The owners of the small, family-owned Longboard Legends pizzeria in Kona agree.

“Taro is a staple in the Hawaiian diet,” explains the venue’s restaurant owner, Stephanie Liebelt.

“It’s normally pounded into a paste to make poi that you eat as a condiment with fish or meat.”

Situated on Hawaii Island, minutes away from Kona’s beachfront promenade, Longboard Legends makes pizzas with taro flour and markets its product as a true “Hawaiian-style pizza”.

“We use taro flour that comes from Honolulu in our dough. The taro also helps with the elasticity of the dough, as we hand-toss all our bases.”

Taro flour’s stretch is essential, given that the restaurant offers an enormous 28-inch pizza.

“Making the dough with taro is as authentic as we can get, other than putting poi on the pizza itself,” adds Stephanie’s father, Vern Liebelt.

Vern explains that although they pitch their Big Hawaiian Pizza as containing ‘ham and pineapple’ to meet consumer expectations, it actually contains homemade, slow-cooked pork, smoked over five days and sliced to look like ham but taste like traditional Hawaiian pork.

The Longboard Legends recipe, which has more crunch than a traditional wheat-flour pizza, is also made with tomato basil sauce using basil grown near the highway, local mozzarella, provolone, fresh Maui pineapple and fresh tomato.

“There’s no ‘real’ Hawaiian pizza,” Glenn reiterates. “Somebody just thought they’d take our luau special and put it on a pizza. But there is a real Hawaiian food combination. So I would say this particular version of pizza, made with shredded pork, not sliced ham, and local pineapple, is authentic.”

And if it works for the locals, who are we to argue?


Photography by Yasmin Noone.

Yasmin Noone travelled as a guest of Hawai'i Tourism Oceania and Hawaiian Airlines.


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