Hawaiian-Style Macaroni Salad

Mac Salad (also known as Macaroni Salad or Hawaiian Macaroni Salad*) is a beloved side dish that we enjoy preparing at home. Discover what sets Hawaii’s mac salad apart, find the best spots in Hawaii to enjoy this dish, and get the recipe!

A bowl of Hawaiian Macaroni Salad.

We have a fondness for mac salad here in Hawaii.

It is formally called “macaroni salad,” but locals simply refer to it as “mac salad.”

Find out more about why mac salad is considered a local dish rather than a Hawaiian dish in the following section.

Chicken katsu plate lunch from Gochi Grill
Mac salad (served with chicken katsu and rice) from Gochi Grill (Oahu).

What Makes Local Mac Salad Unique

Local mac salad is essentially a Hawaiian twist on traditional macaroni salad.

Like many other famous Hawaiian dishes, we take a dish and add our own flavors and traditions. Everything that arrives in Hawaii becomes infused with our local style. ^_^

Local mac salad has a distinctive taste compared to mac salad on the mainland. Here are the key features of local mac salad:

  • Tangy flavor – Often achieved through grated onion or vinegar.
  • Generous amounts of mayo – Always made with Best Foods (also known as Hellman’s) mayonnaise.
  • Fully cooked macaroni noodles – Ideally slightly overcooked! This is not a bad thing since it absorbs the mayo perfectly.
  • Local add-ins – Think ‘ulu (breadfruit) and kamaboko (fishcake).
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Mac salad with a bento at Ookini Onigiri
Mac salad with a bento at Ookini Onigiri (Oahu).

The Journey of Mac Salad To Hawaii

Iconic Hawaiian dishes such as saimin and shave ice were created during the sugar and pineapple plantation era in the late 1800s. These dishes evolved through the collaboration of different ethnic groups working together in Hawaii.

Saimin, for example, is a fusion of ramen, pancit, Chinese noodle soups, and other influences, adjusted to suit local tastes. Shave ice combines elements of kakigori and various ice desserts from Southeast Asia, all adapted to local preferences.

`Ulu mac salad with a poi/kalua pig/lomi lomi salmon bowl at Hanalei Taro
`Ulu mac salad with a poi/kalua pig/lomi lomi salmon bowl at Hanalei Taro (Kauai).

Mac salad, however, has an interesting backstory. According to Arnold Hiura’s “Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands,” there are two possible origins:

  • Some believe that mac salad arrived in Hawaii through European potato salad. Since tourism is Hawaii’s main industry, many European hotel chefs were brought in during the early 1900s. These chefs introduced potato salad to hotel kitchens and restaurant menus. Eventually, home cooks replaced potatoes with macaroni, which was more affordable.
  • Others argue that mac salad was introduced by the managers and owners of sugar and pineapple plantations, who were primarily European. These individuals had their primarily Asian staff prepare potato salad for meals. The staff adapted the potato salad and transformed it into mac salad to suit their own tastes.

And that’s how we ended up with local mac salad.

Mac salad (with ginger-garlic salmon and rice) at Gochi Grill
Mac salad (with ginger-garlic salmon and rice) at Gochi Grill (Oahu).

Is Mac Salad Truly Hawaiian Food?

Beyond Hawaii, this dish is often referred to as “Hawaiian macaroni salad.” However, this is a misnomer because it is a local dish, not specifically Hawaiian. While mac salad originated in Hawaii, it doesn’t automatically become Hawaiian food. You can learn more about this distinction here.

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I titled this post “Hawaiian macaroni salad” not to reinforce the misleading name but in the hope that people will discover this post and realize that Hawaiian macaroni salad is, in fact, just mac salad!

Since there are various types of mac salad around the world, you can also refer to it as Hawaii’s mac salad, Hawaii-style mac salad, or even mac salad from Hawaii.

Ultimately, we just want you to enjoy this dish! ^_^

A plate lunch with loco moco (plus spam) and a scoop of mac salad on the side
Mac salad with Loco Moco at Cafe 100 (Big Island).

Serving Mac Salad in Hawaii

Local mac salad is most commonly served on a plate, alongside two scoops of rice and a meat dish such as chicken katsu, kalbi, loco moco, or hamburger steak. In Hawaii, this is known as a “plate lunch.”

The best part is when some of the meat juices seep into the mac salad. It adds an incredible flavor to the dish!

Mac salad at Liliha Bakery, Ala Moana location (Oahu)
Mac salad at Liliha Bakery, Ala Moana location (Oahu).

Mac salad can also be ordered as a side dish in many restaurants. Having mac salad on the side is always a good idea! Interestingly, when dining with friends at a restaurant, no one will suggest ordering mac salad (probably because it is considered fatty), but if you order it yourself, everyone will be eager to dig in. You might even have to place a second order!

What’s funny is that I don’t enjoy mac salad on the mainland. However, there is something special about local mac salad. It’s not just the dish itself, but also the way it is served, the ambiance, and the surroundings that make eating mac salad in Hawaii feel so right.

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Potato-mac salad at Alicia's Market
Potato-mac salad at Alicia’s Market (Oahu).

How to Enjoy Mac Salad

You can use a fork or chopsticks to eat mac salad. I personally eat mac salad the same way I eat rice and poi—it is a starch that accompanies the main dish.

When dining at a Korean restaurant, I’ll enjoy a piece of kalbi and then use chopsticks to have some mac salad. At a plate lunch spot, I’ll take a bite of chicken katsu and then have a forkful of mac salad.

If I’m feeling a bit lazy, I’ll even use a spoon to savor large spoonfuls of mac salad. This can be either off-putting or delightful, depending on my mood.

Mac salad (made with spaghetti noodles) at Fish Express (Kauai)
Mac salad (made with spaghetti noodles) at Fish Express (Kauai).

Variations of Mac Salad

It’s important to note that there are no strict rules when it comes to mac salad. Similar to how everyone has their own recipe for chili pepper water, each person has their own unique mac salad recipe. Here are some interesting variations to explore in Hawaii:

  • Spaghetti instead of Elbow Macaroni: This variation can often be found in Kauai, though it’s less common on the other islands. The reason why remains a mystery, but it’s certainly a cool twist.
  • Elbow Macaroni and Potato: This mac salad is made with a 50/50 blend of macaroni and potato (boiled and diced). I adore this version!
  • Classic Add-Ins: Peas, canned tuna, and grated carrots are typical additions to local mac salad.
  • Special Add-Ins: ‘Ulu (breadfruit), imitation crab, tobiko, and kamaboko (fishcake) are considered “fancier” add-ins.

Mac salad at Tin Roof (Maui)
Mac salad at Tin Roof (Maui).

Where to Find Mac Salad in Hawaii

Mac salad can be found everywhere in Hawaii! Whether you’re at famous plate lunch destinations like Rainbow Drive-In, local restaurants like Zippy’s and Liliha Bakery, or Hawaiian food spots like Helena’s Hawaiian Food and Alicia’s Market, you’ll encounter mac salad at every turn. Here are a few places to start:

  • Liliha Bakery (Oahu): For a taste of the classic Hawaii-style mac salad.
  • Rainbow Drive-In (Oahu): An iconic spot for local plate lunches, always served with two scoops of rice and mac salad.
  • Helena’s Hawaiian Food (Oahu): They serve mac salad alongside traditional Hawaiian dishes.
  • Alicia’s Market (Oahu): Famous for their potato-mac salad.
  • Gochi Grill (Oahu): I highly recommend their plate lunches and daily specials, especially those that come with mac salad.
  • Zippy’s (Oahu, Maui, Big Island): Mac salad is included with most plate lunch orders. You can find my full post on Zippy’s here.
  • Tin Roof (Maui): Try their ‘ulu mac salad! It’s available as a side dish for just $1. In addition to elbow macaroni, this version features steamed and diced ‘ulu (breadfruit), eggs, celery, carrots, garlic salt, and pepper.
  • Hanalei Taro & Juice Company (Kauai): They also offer ‘ulu mac salad! I love getting it with their poi, kalua pig, and lomi lomi salmon bowl at the Saturday Farmer’s Market (at Kauai Community College).
  • Fish Express (Kauai): Order a side of mac salad (made with spaghetti noodles) with your poke bowl.
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Ingredients for Hawaiian Macaroni Salad laid out on a table.
Ingredients for Mac Salad.


To make mac salad at home, you’ll need the following ingredients:

  • Dried elbow macaroni pasta
  • Best Foods mayonnaise
  • Grated onion
  • Shredded carrots
  • Finely diced celery
  • Salt
  • Pepper

It’s a simple recipe, and all the ingredients are commonly found in any kitchen.

Ingredients for Hawaiian Macaroni Salad combined in a bowl.
Mixing all the mac salad ingredients in a bowl.

Step-by-Step Directions

1. Cook the elbow macaroni. Boil the elbow macaroni pasta for 1-2 minutes longer than the package instructions. Drain the pasta and set it aside to cool for a few minutes.

Friendly tip: It’s crucial to slightly overcook the elbow macaroni. Find out why in the next section.

2. Combine the ingredients. Place the cooked elbow macaroni in a serving bowl. Add the remaining ingredients—mayonnaise, grated onion, shredded carrots, celery, salt, and pepper. Mix everything together using a spoon.

3. Chill in the refrigerator. Refrigerate the dish for at least an hour to allow the flavors to blend. Take it out of the fridge 10 minutes before serving. The mac salad should be cool but not cold. Serve it as a side dish and enjoy! ^_^

A bowl of Hawaiian Macaroni Salad.
Mac salad is easy to make at home.

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