If you’ve spent any time at all in Hawaii and not enjoyed the feeling of breaking open a steaming manapua - then you really haven’t spent time in Hawaii at all. Actually, to be fair - there are many residents (and visitors) who never do this - I’m not sure why - it feels pretty important to the Team here at PTH! Whether you are eating with friends and family or just grabbing one from 7-11 for a quick snack on the way to work - the manapua is a part of Hawaii life.
First of all - what is a manapua? Essentially it’s a steamed bun with a savory filling. Trust me when I tell you it’s a staple of Hawaiian food - but it hasn’t always been here. The origins go back to the first Cantonese to arrive in Hawaii. They brought char siu bao with them - that we call manapua in Hawaii. The Cantonese variety are almost always filled with savory pork in rich sauces...but in Hawaii - there can be many other fillings. Pork, sweet bean curd, curry, barbecue chicken, and even sweet fillings are not uncommon. Manapua have also grown bigger through the years - the small snack size has bloated into something like a small loaf of bread!
The buns themselves are a yeast and baking soda dough that is steamed with the pre-cooked filling in it. Everyone who loves manapua has their favorite place to get them - and some of us guard those secrets closely. That’s why many malihini (newcomers) and visitors to Oahu never learn about the manapua.
From the 1970s onwards Manapua became mobile as trucks began to go through neighborhoods selling manapua, snacks and sometimes even firecrackers! This was the ‘Manapua Man’. The Manapua man is now famous in song and story! The manapua itself however, has resisted being exported, unlike other Hawaiian treats like poke bowls and musubi.