Manapua in Hawaii (And The Famous Manapua Man)

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Bao buns are having a moment – it seems like they’re appearing all over the mainland at all different kinds of restaurants. But Hawaii has long treasured these treats, so much so that we have our own version, called Manapua. 

A Manapua is a soft roll with a savory filling. Char siu pork is the typical filling. In fact, the Manapua originated from the Chinese char siu bao. 

Let’s learn more about this local food and why you should try it on your next visit to the islands. 

What’s Inside? 

It took me a while to get curious enough to order Manapua in Hawaii. It looks like a large round dinner roll, but you can order them baked or steamed. Oftentimes, there are different flavor options too. Since I had no idea about the insides, I passed. 

The outside is bread and tastes like a bun. Inside, it is stuffed with a mixture: pork is traditional, but some are also made with duck, chicken, tofu, eggplant, or the purple sweet potato grown here. But the classic is char siu pork – a sweet and tangy red barbecue sauce. 

Most Manapua aren’t stuffed full with the meat (or meat alternative) – it’s a modest amount in the middle of the bread.

Manapua’s Origins

As with many foods in Hawaii, the Manapua originated somewhere else and developed into a distinctly local creation. 

It began as a Cantonese pork bun called cha siu bao (or char siu bao). You may have seen that item on dim sum menus. It came to Hawaii with Chinese workers who were brought to Hawaii to work on plantations. The Hawaii version is larger and sometimes comes with a variety of non-pork fillings.

The local name is pidgin, not a direct Hawaiian language translation. Two guesses are that it comes from mea ono pua’a, translated as “good pork thing,” or mauna pua’a, meaning “mountain of pork.”

Either way, it’s a tasty addition to Hawaii cuisine and to my “diet” of local foods. That is one of the advantages of being on a college campus: the campus cafeteria had Manapua for a while. 

manapua hawaii vacation

The Manapua Man

Manapua is also a staple in bagged lunches or after-school snacks. Anyone who has grown up here will know that among the familiar sights (and sounds!) before or after school is the Manapua Truck. 

It used to be the “Manapua Man,” but it’s not only men running them, and it seems arcane to refer to the business so gender-specifically.

The Manapua Truck is similar to the mainland’s ice cream truck. But the Manapua Truck has always been more than a guy in a van with chilled treats that turns up every summer. After all, Manapua are savory, filling foods. And the Manapua Man is ingrained in Hawaii culture. 

At one time, the Manapua trucks catered to plantation workers toiling from sun up to sun down. They still serve the hard-working people of Hawaii, along with active kids, soaked surfers, and curious tourists.

In addition to the iconic buns, the Manapua Truck sells fried noodles, pork hash dumplings, and other Asian fast-food favorites. 

A Core Memory for Hawaii Kids

I was often handed an extra dollar in the morning if my parents would be late for supper. Parents knew, and know, that the Manapua Truck has dinner.

At most public schools in Hawaii, the Manapua Truck can be found each morning and afternoon on a curb at the head of a storm of hungry kids carrying just enough cash for their treat. 

When you’re a kid, the Manapua Man knows what you want. He might even float it for you if you haven’t enough money because you’ll be back tomorrow. And you wouldn’t cross him.

For me, it was noodles and a fruit punch. Every day. I was luckier than the other kids, too, because our Manapua Man, Mister Lu, gave me a kickback of two Jolly Ranchers each day as a kind of payoff for parking his truck in front of my house.

For kids, the Manapua Truck is a place to gather, to spend your parents’ money, and to simply be a kid. For the Manapua man, it is a job that requires a tremendous amount of work, labor that begins before sunrise and doesn’t end until after the last customer has long been to bed.

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