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. 

Hawaiian macaroni salad in a blue serving dish.

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.
    Hawaiian macaroni salad ingredients in various bowls.

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.

  1. 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.
    Cooked macaroni pasta in a clear bowl.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
    Cream being poured onto cooked macaroni pasta in a clear bowl.
  4. 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.
    Hawaiian macaroni salad ingredients being mixed together in a clear bowl.
  5. Finally, cover it and store the macaroni salad in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving.
    Hawaiian macaroni salad in a blue serving dish.

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 in a blue serving dish.

Hawaiian Macaroni Salad Recipe

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. 
4.74 from 19 votes
Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 25 mins
Chilling time 1 hr
Total Time 40 mins
Servings 10 servings
Course Salad
Cuisine American
Calories 518

Ingredients 

  • 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

Instructions 

  • 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. 

Notes

  1. 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!
  2. If the pasta salad seems dry, stir in warm water, one tablespoon at a time, to loosen.
  3. Adapted from Best Potluck Recipes.

Nutrition

Calories: 518kcalCarbohydrates: 40gProtein: 8gFat: 36gSaturated Fat: 6gCholesterol: 24mgSodium: 325mgPotassium: 256mgFiber: 2gSugar: 7gVitamin A: 2230IUVitamin C: 2mgCalcium: 79mgIron: 1mg
Tried this Recipe? Pin it for Later!Mention @CulinaryHill or tag #CulinaryHill!

Meggan Hill

I’m the Executive Chef and head of the Culinary Hill Test Kitchen. Every recipe is developed, tested, and approved just for you.

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Comments

  1. I just made it, and it was way too vinegary. Is there a way to cut down the vinegar flavor in a batch that is already made? I made a half recipe.

    1. Hi Debra, I would try adding more mayonnaise and sugar (you could try some white sugar instead of the brown) and maybe just a pinch of salt or so. I’m sorry you didn’t like it with all the vinegar! I feel like this recipe is really polarizing. Some people love it, some people hate it.

    1. I made this for my daughter’s Moana party a few days after asking this question… I made it a day in advance and it turned out fantastic!! I was a little apprehensive because my husband is Hawaiian (and doesn’t actually like Mac salad). Not only did this taste similar to what we have had with plate lunch, my husband actually thought it was delicious!5 stars

    2. Thank you so much for this comment, Andrea! In case you read any of the other comments, this recipe tends to be quite polarizing – people either love it or hate it. So this makes my day! I’m glad you liked it and your husband liked it too – I’m amazed. :D Also, Moana is my favorite Disney movie ever. FYI. Take care and thanks again! -Meggan

  2. I just made this tonight to go with our smoked rib dinner and it was a hit! It tastes exactly like the Hawaiian restaurant around the corner and I love it!!! Thanks so much 5 stars

  3. Just a tip. One thing I was taught in Hawaii is to grate an onion. The smallest setting so it is the same consistency as applesauce. It is the bomb! I was told a very popular restaurant known for their mac salad in Hawaii did this.5 stars

  4. We just got back from Hawaii and absolutely love the Mac salad in their plate lunches. Wanted to hopefully duplicate it so we could continue to enjoy it and came across this recipe. Well I just have to say this recipe definitely hits the nail on the head for an authentic Hawaiian Mac salad!!! Thank you so much Meggan! This recipe is a keeper!!! I’m going to try some of your other recipes too😊5 stars

  5. I just tried your receipe and it was exactly like the local Hawaiian Grill that I was trying to replicate!!!

    Thank you!5 stars

  6. I made this today, followed the recipe, I think, but I doubled everything. It turned out REALLY vinegary. I used apple cider vinegar. I did use big macaroni noodles instead of small, and didn’t end up putting the vegetables in because it was so bad, and I figured inns probably have to throw it away anyway.

    Is it supposed to be vinegary? I checked quantities a lot, so I don’t think I put too much un, but I can’t figure out what I did wrong.1 star

    1. Hi Megan, I’m sorry to hear that. I am guessing it is the noodle size that messed things up, perhaps they didn’t absorb the vinegar as well as the small noodles would. If I try to visualize it in my head, the large noodles would have a lot more space between them, would not lay in the bowl as well, and therefore might not have the surface area with the vinegar. It might be a pile of noodles sitting in the bowl, all the way to the top, the vinegar pooling in the bottom and not coming in to contact with them. This is just speculation of course, maybe all the apple cider vinegar was absorbed because you stirred it often. If you didn’t add the vegetables, that might have changed the flavor too or balanced it out.

  7. This is one of my favorite salads. My family is vegan so we adjusted the recipe a little to fit our needs but it still turned out delicious! 5 stars

    1. That’s awesome Nicole! What are the vegan adjustments? Did you just use vegan mayo? I’d love to know. Thank you so much for the comment! Take care.

  8. This is certainly the kind that would be served on plate lunches, as is a good all-purpose recipe. I just wanted to add, however, that there is also a more substantial recipe that is sometimes found at potlucks and that kind of thing. I first had it when my Filipino roommate made it. It had the basic ingredients, plus chopped ham, chicken and pineapple. I’ve made it many, many times, although I don’t usually add chicken. The pineapple tidbits work the best, although sometimes I just cut up the chunks. I use it more as a main dish, with a green salad, maybe a cooked vegetable, and Asian style rice. My high school, in Hawaii, Waipahu, served a more basic macaroni salad, on a bed of raw watercress, with a few side dishes, for lunch, quite often, and it was one of my favorites!5 stars

  9. Thanks for this recipe. There is a teriyaki grill near my daughters home, and they serve this salad. We love it. It’s amazing how such simple ingredients combine to make something really delicious.5 stars

    1. That’s so great to hear, Mimi! I appreciate your kind words. I love how easy this is. The one I always used to make has a million mix-ins – ham, bacon, broccoli, carrots, peppers, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, plus all this stuff. It’s just exhausting after a while! But you can throw this one together in a flash. Thanks again for reading!