When you can’t get to the Big Island, bring the Big Island to you with authentic Hawaiian Macaroni Salad. This beloved recipe for ‘Mac Salad’ has soft noodles, creamy dressing, and lots of shredded carrots. It’s perfect for a plate lunch, a luau, or a barbecue.
What is a Hawaiian plate lunch?
A big, inexpensive meal consisting of three components. Based on the Japanese bento box, which keeps food compartmentalized, plate lunches were often served in a segmented paper box.
Plate lunches were first served in the late 1800s, to feed immigrant workers in sugar cane and pineapple plantations. Workers from Portugal, the Philippines, Japan, China, and Korea all needed something filling and cheap to eat. They brought their culture to Hawaii, so the lunch plate is a true multi-cultural experience.
First, a meat entrée, which can be breaded pork Katsu, Kalua pork, a hamburger patty topped with an egg, Chinese-style pork, or salmon teriyaki. There’s a lot of variety here; it can be almost anything.
Then meat always comes with a couple scoops of sticky rice. Traditionally, this would have been day-old rice from the night before. Filling and cheap.
Hawaiian Macaroni Salad showed up on the plate a little later, when food trucks and roadside stands started selling plate lunches to the masses. Why? Because everyone loves a good macaroni salad, and it was inexpensive, too.
Macaroni Salad ingredients:
- Macaroni. For gluten-free Hawaiian Macaroni Salad, use rice-flour macaroni.
- Mayonnaise. Because the mayo features prominently in the dressing, use the best quality you can find: Best Foods, Hellman’s, or Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise.
- Milk. Full fat milk, please. A 1:1 ratio of mayo to milk sounds unusual, but it soaks into the pasta and gives the salad the taste everyone expects.
- Apple cider vinegar. Some Hawaiian restaurants add a little cider vinegar to the cooked noodles to make them more absorbent, and hold the flavors of the dressing better. While some purists may disagree, the little bit of vinegar tang also tastes great. If you’re unsure about it, use less or none at all.
- Brown sugar. Just a little. Although a splash of Teriyaki sauce is what some people use.
- Scallions. Optional, but Hawaiian Mac Salad tastes fabulous with some sort of onion. One grated onion is commonly used, so it blends in to the salad without being noticed.
- Carrots. Grated or shredded carrots in an ingredient that most Hawaiians can agree on.
- Celery. Completely optional, but a couple ribs of finely chopped celery adds some pretty delightful crunch.
- Salt and pepper. However, some cooks use a splash of soy sauce instead.
- Other wildly debated ingredients: Chopped green olives, chopped hardboiled egg, finely chopped cooked potatoes, watercress, pickle relish, frozen peas, or canned tuna for something heartier.
How to make Hawaiian Macaroni Salad:
Here are the basic steps to authentic macaroni salad, Hawaiian-style. Follow along, but for exact amounts, see the recipe card below.
- First, cook the macaroni in a large pot of salted water. Try to cook the macaroni just to the point of overcooking it. The noodles should be soft, fat, and ready to soak up lots of sauce.
- Then drain the pasta, transfer it to a large bowl, and toss it in the vinegar while it’s still hot. This is so the vinegar doesn’t curdle the dressing. Let the pasta cool at least 10 minutes.
- To make the Hawaiian salad dressing, mix together the mayonnaise, milk, brown sugar, and some salt and pepper. Next, pour the dressing over the macaroni noodles and gently fold it in until combined.
- Add the remaining ingredients (celery, scallion, and carrots–or anything you think sounds good) and toss to combine. If the salad seems too dry, add a tablespoon of warm water at a time, mixing in between tablespoons, until it loosens up.
- Finally, cover it and store the macaroni salad in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving.
Healthy Hawaiian Macaroni Salad:
You could probably try this salad with Greek yogurt, in place of some or all of the mayonnaise, but the end goal is for you to love the recipe. Write about it in the comments, if you try it! Otherwise try Greek pasta salad, with uses a vinaigrette in place of a mayo-based dressing.
Hawaiian Macaroni Salad Recipe
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar (see notes)
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 carrots, peeled and grated
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- In a large stockpot, bring 4 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil, Stir in pasta and cook until very soft, about 15 minutes, stirring often.
- Drain well, transfer to a large bowl, and stir in vinegar. Cool at least 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together milk, mayonnaise, brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons pepper. Pour over cooled noodles and stir until evenly coated.
- Fold in scallions, carrots, and celery and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
- I love the vinegar flavor in this recipe. I personally think it tastes great. BUT. If you think ½ cup vinegar sounds like too much, feel free to use less. Perhaps add 1 tablespoon at a time. A couple of readers have suggested this had way too much vinegar and they were disappointed. I want you to love the recipe!
- If the pasta salad seems dry, stir in warm water, one tablespoon at a time, to loosen.
- Adapted from Best Potluck Recipes.