Hawaiian Mac Salad Is More Than Your Average Side Dish

Hawaiian mac salad isn't trying to be something it is not. It is mild, creamy, simple, and soft. It isn't full of fancy ingredients, farm fresh vegetables, or high-dollar proteins — in fact, it is made up of affordable pantry staples that many people already have on hand. Mac salad plays an Academy Award-worthy supporting role, and Hawaiian plate lunches and potlucks would be incomplete without this delightful side dish.

The majority of the volume of Hawaiian mac salad, also usually called mac salad, comes from cooked macaroni noodles and mayonnaise. The noodles must be overcooked so that they are puffy and soft, and the mayonnaise must be Best Foods brand with Hellmann's being the only acceptable alternative. These two products, owned by parent company Unilever, contain identical ingredients (though Best Foods does contain a touch more sodium) — the brand you see on store shelves is just different depending on where you live. Aside from the base of the salad, different families and restaurants add their own variations, but the important thing is that mac salads take on a starchy-neutral function, like rice.

There isn't a clear line as to where mac salad actually originated from, but it more than likely evolved from European-style potato salads. Mac salad was probably born from having predominantly Asian workers prepare potato salad on European-owned plantations or at Waikiki hotels. The macaroni noodles were incorporated as a more affordable (and shelf-stable) substitute as Hawaiians recreated the dish to suit their own tastes.

How do you make Hawaiian mac salad?

While it may seem counterintuitive to overcook the macaroni noodles, mac salad aficionados say that this step is key. It allows the noodles to fully absorb the dressing and transforms this side dish from cold noodles with sauce into something creamy and cohesive.

At its most basic, cooked macaroni pasta is combined with mayonnaise, salt, and ground black pepper, sometimes with a little bit of milk or vinegar to thin the sauce. This is where cooks make mac salad their own. This is a dish that locals feel strongly about getting right, but some variation is permissible. Cubed potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and spaghetti noodles broken into pieces can be added to the base. Grated white or yellow onion, chopped green onion, grated carrot, or diced celery can be incorporated for crunch, color, and flavor. Some say acid provides balance while others say it is completely unnecessary. If you are in the former camp, you can stir in a bit of apple cider vinegar, sweet pickle relish, or dill pickle brine. 

A touch of white sugar for sweetness or spices like garlic and onion powder can be added for seasoning. For some, a little something extra like green peas, chopped ham, canned tuna, imitation crab, fish roe called tobiko, breadfruit, or fish cakes called kamaboko complete the dish. For others, these additions mess with the simplicity of mac salad.

What can you eat with mac salad?

No one will judge you for plopping down on the couch with the mixing bowl and a spoon — it's just that good. If your mac salad makes it past the taste testing, consider serving it alongside Hawaiian plate lunch classics.

Mac salad became a fixture of rich and filling plate lunches as an affordable way to stretch a meal for plantation workers in the late 1800s. A plate lunch typically includes two scoops of rice, a scoop of mac salad, a small handful of greens, and a generous portion of protein. The main dishes reflect the multicultural past and present of Hawaii, and the creamy and mild mac salad provides the necessary balance to salty, sweet, charred, saucy, or fried meats. 

Try cool mac salad alongside hot and crispy Japanese-style chicken or pork katsu. Grilled meats like Chinese roasted pork or Korean kalbi benefit from the mellow mac. Sweet glazed shoyu chicken, teriyaki beef, and Filipino-style adobo play well with the sweetness of the mayo. Hawaiian mainstays like local beef stew, slow-roasted pork shoulder called Kalua pork, or loco moco — brown gravy smothered hamburger patties topped with a fried egg — wouldn't be caught dead without mac salad by their side.

Mac salad is there to complete a meal. Even if you aren't feasting on dishes popular in Hawaii, mac salad is versatile and delightfully neutral, making for a great addition to any barbecue, picnic, or potluck spread.