Hawaii’s cultural diversity has made the tropical islands a rich melting pot of delicious cuisine with Asian, Polynesian, American and European influences. A number of local dishes have evolved from such diverse influences, such as saimin, lomi salmon, plate lunches, loco moco, spam musubi, chicken long rice and others. But one of the most delicious and popular food items drawn from other cultures is Hawaii’s version of Portuguese sweet bread.
During the late 19th century, Portuguese immigrants began arriving in Hawaiian from the Madeira and Azores islands. These Portuguese immigrants were primarily contracted to work on sugar plantations, and brought along many influential cultural traditions with them. In addition to the slack-key guitar and the ukulele, Hawaii’s Portuguese immigrants also introduced many foods such as Portuguese linguisa sausage, malasada (essentially a doughnut without a hole), Portuguese bean soup and Portuguese pão doce or sweet bread to the islands. Since the early 1900’s, pão doce has been a popular dish for many festive occasions in Hawaii.
At the Kona Historical Society on the Big Island of Hawaii, the traditional Portuguese stone-oven method of baking pão doce is kept in regular practice. A large stone oven is heated for several hours, while workers mix the tasty dough, letting it rise before forming 7 buns in a flower-like configuration. The bread is then baked and sold to anyone wants to taste a morsel of the past. The society holds weekly demonstrations on Thursday from 10 am to 1 pm, so that on-lookers can learn how the sweet bread was originally baked.
In the past, most locals in Hawaii would refer to Portuguese sweet bread by its Portuguese name. The place to readily get one of the more traditional forms of Hawaii’s pão doce is at Leonard’s Bakery, located in the Kapahulu area of Honolulu. Here, pão doce is made by a family whose ancestors originally came from Portugal back in the late 1800s in a form that somewhat resembles a baseball catcher’s mitt. Besides offering the local community high quality baked goods for many generations now, Leonard’s Bakery is an important cultural icon, symbolizing the influence of Portuguese immigrants in the history and culture of the Aloha State.
Today Hawaii’s version of the traditional Portuguese sweet bread has taken many forms where it may not have the same classic appearance of the traditional pão doce. Today, there are a number of bakeries that make sweet bread in the form of rolls and hamburger-sized buns as well as can be found at just about any supermarket in the islands. There are also numerous restaurants that bake their own version of the mouth-watering bread on their menu. But in general, such items are no longer referred to as Portuguese sweet bread and are simply referred to as sweet bread, sweet rolls, sweet buns, etc. Some enterprising companies like to refer to them as Hawaiian sweet bread to make them more marketable; but make no mistake, the latest generation of sweet breads in the Aloha State owes their existence to the Portuguese immigrants that taught the people of Hawaii how to bake them as well as enjoy them.
Here are some of the many places where you can sample sweet bread in Hawaii today:
Punalu’u Bake Shop on the Big Island is located near black sand beaches and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, making it the perfect stopping place for day-trips. They sell sweet rolls, sweet bread lasagna, guava sweetbread tortes, sweet bread tiramisu and sweet bread pudding. For those planning future trips to Hawaii, but are still trapped on the mainland, Punalu’u can FedEx their baked sweet bread, or bread and malasada mix to your doorstep.
Ani’s Bake Shop in Aiea on the island of Oahu makes sweet bread and butter cream rolls, guava butter rolls and the fluffiest sweet bread loaves imaginable. Visitors in Honolulu should make a special trip to Ani’s for some of the finest sweet bread and desserts on the island.
As noted in its name, Liliha Bakery, a favorite of locals, is located in the Liliha area of Honolulu. Here you can not only find freshly made traditional style Portuguese sweet bread, but also a wide range of pastry items including their famous cream-filled coco puffs.