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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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The malasada, Hawaii’s beloved donut, tastes of home — and maybe guava

Hawaii's twist on the traditional donut — yeasted, puffy, doughy malasadas, inspired by Portuguese immigrants — are a symbolically laden part of the islands' vibrant food culture.

HONOLULU (CN) — The first Friday in June is America’s sweetest holiday — National Donut Day, a tasty end to the week for people across the country to indulge in. The 50th state, Hawaii, will celebrate June 7 with its own spin on the traditional donut — the malasada, beloved across the islands for over a century.

Often referred to as “Hawaiian donuts,” malasadas are yeasted donuts that originated in Portugal but are extremely popular in Hawaii, where they have a strong cultural stamp. They are recognizable for their distinct round and puffy shape, with no hole like traditional American donuts, and white granulated sugar covering.

Growing up on Oahu meant eating lots of malasadas. They were at every celebration, holiday party, potluck and fair I can remember. They quickly became one of my favorite childhood sweet treats and even as an adult, I feel a sense of nostalgia every time I find them at a party. For many of us here, malasadas have become a symbol rather than just a food.  

In Portuguese, the word “malassada,” now commonly spelled as malasadas, roughly translates to “poorly baked” — a reference to its golden-brown exterior and doughier interior. The texture sets malasadas apart from other types of donuts and makes them highly prized.

Traditional malasadas do not have any type of filling, but nowadays they are commonly stuffed with custard or creams flavored with local Hawaiian favorites like haupia — coconut cream, lilikoi — passion fruit, guava, mango, ube — purple yam, or pineapple.

While malasadas' cultural presence is surely felt here, their historical significance and origins aren't so widely discussed. The donuts have a rich history in Hawaii dating back to the 1870s. During the plantation era, large plantations across the state imported laborers from across Asia, as well as areas of Portugal, including Madeira and the Azores. These laborers brought their traditional foods with them, including malassadas.

As the years passed and more Portuguese communities settled in, these fried pieces of dough became more than just a treat; they became a symbol of community and breaking barriers.

Portuguese immigrants imported Catholic practices and traditions like the celebration of Lent and Fat Tuesday. Traditionally, Catholics have used Mardi Gras as a way to rid the house of any fats and desserts in preparation for Lent. This made it the perfect time to make malasadas, which eventually became a tradition for Portuguese people on Fat Tuesday.

Oftentimes, they lived onsite at plantations alongside people from many other communities. People would make malasadas in large batches to share with their neighbors, regardless of their background. Today, as an ode to the tradition, Fat Tuesday is commonly referred to as Malasada Day in Hawaii, with many bakeries offering these sugary delights.

One bakery that serves malasadas year-round is the Pipeline Bakeshop, in Kaimuki, Oahu. When they opened in September 2016, malasadas were on the menu.

Owner Gayla Young said the local donut was the first recipe they perfected before deciding to open their doors. Since then, the bake shop has gained lots of attention for its unique specialty malasada flavors including matcha green tea, pumpkin and gingerbread, as well as the creation of their enormously popular malasada ice cream sandwiches. 

Although the shop owes much of its success to this best selling pastry, Young said that making malasadas isn’t all it's cracked up to be.

“A good malasada is not easy to make,” she said. “Texture and freshness are key. Traditional donuts have an entirely different texture and flavor.”

That being said, Young said that over time, she has perfected her malasada recipe. Now they have a longer shelf life — so much so Pipeline began shipping malasadas nationwide in 2019.

That statement fascinated me: It was the first time I've ever heard of malasadas being shipped, and it made me think of all the time I spent living away, craving a piece of my home and childhood. 

Funnily enough, this same sentiment echoes the inspiration for today’s holiday.

In 1917, volunteers went to France during World War I to bring critical supplies and provide emotional support to American soldiers on the front lines. The volunteers were nicknamed “Donut Lassies” for the donuts they fried and served to thousands. Not only were these sweet treats meant to boost morale, but they were also offered as a sense of comfort to homesick soldiers who yearned for the classic American baked goods back home. 

In honor of National Donut Day and with the aim of ending the week on a high — and sweet — note, I’ve decided to get a box of malasadas for myself, my coworkers and my family. No matter how many malasadas I’ve had, I never get sick of them. Instead, they have become an indulgent reminder of my love for Hawaii’s vibrant food culture.

Young says it best: “Malasadas are part of our Hawaiian culture and are a staple food here in the islands. There really isn't anything like it.”

Categories / Entertainment, Travel

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