The Iconic Plate Lunch Staple: Hawaiian Macaroni Salad
My Mom was born and raised in Honolulu, where macaroni salad is absolutely ICONIC. In Hawaii, mac salad is served at family potlucks, backyard cookouts, restaurants, food trucks, and just about everywhere in between. Aside from rice, it’s probably the most popular side dish on the islands.
Mom’s Hawaiian mac salad is her most well-loved dish among our family and friends. It’s super creamy, super satisfying, and super special – practically everyone begs for the recipe after they try it! Ever since we started sharing more local-style Hawaiian recipes here on PWWB, it’s been one of our most highly requested recipes. Needless to say, I’m so excited to finally share it with you today!
Like most of her recipes, Mom’s Hawaiian macaroni salad is simple to prepare, packed with flavor, and an amazing comfort food for any occasion, but it strays from tradition slightly in 2 ways:
- EXTRA SPICES. Mom uses the littlest bit of paprika and turmeric, which creates an eye-catching orange hue. We’re obsessed with the extra flavor they provide!
- AL DENTE PASTA. While classic Hawaiian macaroni salad is made with well-cooked, soft and tender noodles, I think using al dente elbow macaroni makes all the difference in the world. (As a pasta purist, I can’t resist the texture of al dente pasta!)
Of course, you can easily omit the spices for a more classic appearance and cook the pasta longer for a more traditional texture. Regardless, I think you’re going to be obsessed with this mac salad! It’s the best shareable side dish to bring to a potluck, serve at a cookout with friends, or for enjoying at home with a Hawaiian-style plate lunch.
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Mom’s Mac Salad Recipe Highlights
We may be biased, but we think Mom’s is the best Hawaiian macaroni salad you can find on the mainland. You’ll love it because it’s…
- TENDER AND CREAMY. Al dente pasta tossed in creamy spiced mayonnaise creates the absolute best balance of textures.
- PERFECTLY SPICED. 5 flavorful spices add plenty of flavors and create a beautiful orange color that makes Mom’s Hawaiian mac salad really stand out.
- THE IDEAL SIDE DISH. Mac salad is the perfect side for backyard cookouts, potlucks, or the iconic Hawaiian plate lunch.
There’s nothing more ‘ono than a big scoop (or two!) of local-style mac salad! 🤙🏼♡ Read on to learn more about how to make Mom’s Hawaiian Mac Salad, or jump straight to the recipe and get cooking!
Why is Macaroni Salad So Popular in Hawaii?
I can’t emphasize this enough – mac salad is absolutely iconic in Hawaii. Hawaiian macaroni salad is a staple of the plate lunch, an affordable meal that traces back to the plantation fields of the early 1900s. Native Hawaiians and migrant laborers from Japan, Korea, and China often packed lunches of meat dishes from their homeland alongside a scoop of white rice. It was hearty, cheap, and good fuel for a day’s work.
It’s said that Hawaiian macaroni salad made its way onto the plate lunch once Europeans introduced dry elbow macaroni and mayonnaise to the islands. Locals quickly adopted these ingredients because mac salad was affordable, not perishable (unlike a potato salad), and easy to make at home. It’s also a creamy palette cleanser that balances a variety of salty, sweet, boldly spiced proteins. Today, restaurants and street vendors always serve plate lunch with a generous scoop of Hawaiian macaroni salad along with meat and rice.
There are lots of different Hawaiian mac salad variations – it’s the kind of thing that everyone has a recipe they swear by. I’ve tried mac salad recipes that use a blend of potatoes and macaroni, while others mix in ingredients like hard-boiled eggs. But the 2 things that you’ll always find in a Hawaiian macaroni salad recipe are 1. Elbow macaroni and 2. Best Foods Mayonnaise.
Note: Full ingredients list and measurements provided in the Recipe Card, below.
Key Ingredients for Hawaiian Style Macaroni Salad
You need just a few simple ingredients to make this mac salad recipe…
- Dry elbow macaroni – Elbow-style macaroni is classic for Hawaiian mac salad, but you can also use any other short pasta you like or sub in gluten-free pasta if needed.
- Best Foods Real Mayonnaise – Locals swear by Best Foods Mayonnaise (if you live in the Midwest or on the East Coast then you’ll know it as Hellman’s) – learn more below!
- Carrot – A bit of grated carrot adds a little texture and some color.
- Granulated sugar – Just a tiny bit, to help balance the richness of the mayo dressing.
- Spices – Mom likes to use Lawry’s seasoned salt in her mac salad, which is not traditional but we think it’s the secret ingredient that makes her recipe so special and crave-worthy. I don’t stock my kitchen with Lawry’s, so you’ll see this mac salad recipe uses a blend of garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, turmeric, and cayenne pepper to replicate its spiced flavor.
Best Foods Real Mayonnaise
Best Foods Mayonnaise is the secret ingredient for an amazing Hawaiian macaroni salad – it’s a must for a perfectly satisfying, creamy mac salad. Since there’s nowhere to hide in such a simple dish, skimping on quality mayonnaise impacts both the flavor and texture of mac salad. Folks completely swear by it in Hawaii – Best Foods mayo is basically a mac salad non-negotiable!
Never heard of Best Foods Mayo? ⇢ In Hawaii and on the West Coast of the United States this brand of mayonnaise is known as “Best Foods Mayonnaise.” But here in the Midwest or on the East Coast you probably know of it as “Hellman’s Mayonnaise.” If you’ve never heard of Best Foods Mayonnaise before, shop for Hellman’s instead – it’s the same product! The name just differs based on what region of the country you are in.
Need vegan macaroni salad? ⇢ Simply use your favorite vegan mayonnaise instead! I’m a big fan of Sir Kensington’s Vegan Mayo.
How to Make Hawaiian Macaroni Salad
Aside from its flavor and creaminess, the reason you’ll love Mom’s Hawaiian mac salad recipe is because it’s SO simple – it comes together with 3 simple steps in 30 minutes or less, with just 2 dishes to wash!
Boil the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water and cook your macaroni (or mac salad pasta of choice) to al dente. Classic Hawaiian macaroni salad is made with very tender noodles, so this is not especially traditional but I prefer the little bit of texture al dente pasta adds.
Once cooked, drain the pasta, rinse with cold water, and set aside. Why? ⇢ While I don’t typically condone rinsing cooked noodles, pasta salad is the exception. Rinsing the pasta shocks the macaroni, preventing it from continuing to cook and wilting the other ingredients in the mac salad.
Assemble the Hawaiian macaroni salad. Combine grated carrot, Best Foods Mayonnaise, sugar, and spices to a large bowl, then add the cooled elbow macaroni. Season with salt and ground black pepper, then stir to combine until every piece of macaroni is coated evenly.
Serve immediately. I love to add some finely sliced green onions or chives to a bowl of Hawaiian mac salad for a little pop of extra color before serving. Enjoy right away once prepared!
Mac Salad Meal Prep
Since this is a super thick and creamy mac salad, it’s best to assemble it right before serving. If mixed too early, the pasta really soaks up the mayo, which impacts the overall texture of the mac salad.
The best way to prep this Hawaiian mac salad ahead of time without impacting its creamy, dreamy texture is to toss the cooked pasta with the carrot, sugar, and spices. When you’re ready to assemble, simply fold in the mayonnaise – easy!
Check the Recipe Notes, below, for full make-ahead instructions.
Serving Hawaiian Mac Salad Like a Local
Hawaiian macaroni salad pairs perfectly with boldly spiced stews, braised meats, grilled meats, and more. This includes many of the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese meat dishes commonly found in the classic plate lunch. In my family, we serve a big scoop of Hawaiian mac salad alongside rice with our other favorite local-style dishes. Pure comfort food!
Prep a batch of mac salad and build your own plate lunch with…
- Shoyu Chicken – Creamy mac salad pairs perfectly with the savory-sweet shoyu sauce in this one-pot meal.
- Kalua Pig – One of my family’s most treasured recipes! It’s rich, earthy, smoky, and another iconic Hawaiian staple, just like mac salad.
- Hawaiian-Style Kalbi Short Ribs – A scoop of mac salad is the perfect pair for these fall-apart tender, savory-sweet Korean beef short ribs.
Beyond plate lunch, Hawaiian macaroni salad is a great pasta salad side dish for any occasion. It’s a deliciously fun way to mix things up when you would traditionally serve pasta salad.
I can’t wait for you to try Mom’s Hawaiian Mac Salad recipe. If you do give it a try, be sure to let me know! Leave a comment with a star rating below. You can also snap a photo and tag @playswellwithbutter on Instagram. I LOVE hearing about and seeing your PWWB creations! Happy cooking! ♡
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Few local-style Hawaiian dishes are more iconic than mac salad! My mom, who was born and raised in Honolulu, makes the BEST Hawaiian Macaroni Salad this side of the Pacific – guaranteed to broke da mouth! 😁🌺🤙🏼
Mom’s easy mac salad recipe is classic with a couple of twists, folding elbow macaroni into a creamy Best Food’s Real Mayonnaise dressing with grated carrot and fragrant spices. Since this is a really creamy macaroni salad, we stray from tradition by using spices like paprika and turmeric for extra flavor and al dente pasta for textural contrast. Of course, you can easily omit the spices for a more classic appearance and cook the pasta longer for more traditional texture.
Mac salad the best shareable side dish to bring to a potluck or serve at a cookout with friends. Or enjoy build your own at-home Hawaiian-style plate lunch – try my family’s Shoyu Chicken, Kalua Pork, or Kalbi (Hawaiian-Style Grilled Korean Short Ribs).
Be sure to refer to the Recipe Notes, below, for make-ahead and meal prep guidance, along with a couple of easy substitutions for gluten-free and vegan dietary preferences.
- 8 ounces dry elbow macaroni or short pasta of choice
- 1 medium carrot, peeled as desired and grated
- 1 cup Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise (also known as Best Foods Real Mayonnaise in Hawaii and on the West Coast)
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- optional: up to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- kosher salt and ground black pepper
- Boil the macaroni: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, generously salt the water. Add in the pasta and cook to al dente, according to package directions. Drain the pasta, rinsing with cold water, and set aside.
- Assemble the macaroni salad: Add cooled elbows to a large mixing bowl with the grated carrot, mayonnaise, sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, turmeric, and cayenne (if using). Season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and ground black pepper, as desired. Stir to combine, seasoning with additional spices and/or salt as needed.
- Serve immediately, garnished with finely sliced green onions or chives as desired. In Hawaii, mac salad is often served plate lunch-style, alongside rice with local favorites like shoyu chicken, kalua pig, teriyaki beef, kalbi, etc. Enjoy!
- Dietary Restrictions: As written, this Hawaiian macaroni salad recipe is naturally vegetarian and dairy-free. With a few quick and simple swaps, you can also make it…
- Gluten-free macaroni salad: Simply swap the macaroni with your gluten-free pasta of choice. Be sure to cook according to package directions to achieve the perfect al dente bite.
- Vegan macaroni salad: Simply swap the mayonnaise with your favorite vegan mayonnaise. I’m a big fan of Sir Kensington’s Vegan Mayo, which is made with aquafaba (chickpea cooking liquid) and has seriously amazing flavor and texture.
- Make-Ahead and Storage: This Hawaiian mac salad is best served immediately upon dressing (see Meal Prep tips, below, for a better make-ahead plan), though leftovers will keep for up to 3 days. Store the leftover macaroni salad in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
- 10-Minute Meal Prep: If you’d like to do a little prep in advance to help cut down on the active prep time when toss together your mac salad, go ahead and boil + season the pasta:
- Boil the macaroni according to Step 1 of Recipe Directions, above. Toss rinsed and cooled pasta with grated carrot, sugar, and all listed spices. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. To serve, simply fold in the mayonnaise – easy! (10 minutes active prep)
Keywords: Hawaiian plate lunch, Hawaiian side dish recipe, macaroni salad recipe, mac salad
Recipe by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by KJ & Company, Kate Poskochil