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Jun 23, 2010 12:21 AM

Hawaii with a fish allergy


I'm very seriously allergic to fish (not shellfish). My husband and I will be visiting the Big Island and Kauai.

First, are there Hawaiian words I need to know -- ingredients or menu items that I might not recognize as containing fish?

Second, can you recommend any restaurants that are allergy-aware, particularly seafood restaurants? I can eat, and really enjoy, shellfish, but only if there is no cross-contamination and not too much cooking fish smell coming out of the kitchen. (I can tell when I walk into a place whether or not the smell will be an issue.)


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  1. ** Caution: Pork lau laus contain a piece of butterfish for flavor. ** Laulaus are a traditional Hawaiian food, so if you get one of these, ask if it has butterfish (usually the chicken ones don't but ask!).

    Are you somewhat familiar with asian food? My biggest concern for hidden fish would be soups and sauces. It's common to use dashi as a base which has fish, and fish sauce, which may or may not contain fin fish, may be an ingredient in lots of sauces and soups.

    One word to look out for is poke, which is usually raw fish, but could also be shellfish, etc. with seasonings. Also kamaboko, which is fish cake - it's often bright pink and/or white and can be a topping on a lot of noodle dishes and some bentos. Also, look closely at futomaki sushi - in Hawaii there is often colorful dried fish powder that doesn't look like fish at all.

    Sorry can't be any help on the allergy aware restos. Good luck!

    6 Replies
    1. re: akq

      Thanks for all the hints about specific things to be aware of. That is more important than specific restaurants, as I'm pretty good at dealing with less-aware restaurants. But knowing to ask about certain specific things like fish sauce, dried fish powders, etc. is helpful because less-aware restaurant staff often wouldn't think of such things.

      I'm not really familiar with Hawaiian cooking at all. I know to watch out for fish sauce in Thai cooking, but Chinese is usually fine. Japanese seems to fall somewhere in between and I'm guessing that Hawaiian may be between Japanese and Thai? I often avoid Asian restaurants if there seems to be a language barrier to my explaining my allergy. Which leads to my next question: I'm not really sure how much of a "foreign language environment" we're walking into here. Should we expect wait staff at most restaurants (and we're on a budget, so for the most part we won't be choosing pricey tourist-oriented restaurants) to be fluent in English or are there a lot of Hawaiians who speak mostly Hawaiian? We've never been to Hawaii before and I'm not sure how much the Hawaiian language/culture has been assimilated.

      Would most restaurants understand "vegetarian" that I could use as a safe haven, or might they not think twice about things like the fish sauce as long as there aren't chunks of meat/fish in the dish?

      1. re: vermontpurple

        Foreign language?? We are after all the 50th state and although we truly are a mix of many cultures english is the first language so don't worry. You should not have any problems getting your needs across to the wait staff at most restaurants but if you decide to "go local" it might become a problem, especially at the lunch wagons and plate lunch joints.

        1. re: EvoRoadster

          I didn't mean to offend anyone with the foreign language question, but isn't the Hawaiian language the first language of many Hawaiians? The distinction between fish and shellfish can be subtle and hard to get across even to a lot of native English speakers. I'm not asking whether people can speak English well enough to offer typical tourist hospitality, I'm asking if people will be able to understand subtle distinctions about an allergy that can kill me. (Making that determination on the spot determines whether or not I try any kind of seafood in a given restaurant.) Also we do hope to "go local" :)

          1. re: vermontpurple

            No. Hawaiian is not a commonly spoken first language, but we do use "pidgeon" and certain words in Hawaiian are common.

            1. re: vermontpurple

              shelllfish allergies are fairly common in hawaii, fish allergies less so. When you first tell someone you have a fish allergy, they will probably assume that it is shellfish. If you tell them you are opposite everyone else, that shellfish is fine, but fish, in any form, is a problem...they will probably understand.

              1. re: vermontpurple

                I don't believe anyone is offended, bemused perhaps but not offended. Pidgen is a slang used by many locals but is usually reserved for use with family and friends so you should have no language problems.

        2. You probably will not understand anything that is spoken here. Everyone only speaks Hawaiian and EVERY dish has fish in it. You should probably hide in your hotel and only eat room service chicken fingers. HAHA I kid - you will be fine just stick with loco moco and chicken dishes - as an aside I am so sorry that you have a fish allergy - if I could not eat sushi and fish I would consider Seppuku...

          1. Can you eat seaweed? If not, then you're SOL on spam musubi too!!!!

            FWIW, I would say the majority of people don't speak Hawaiian, just some words.

            I think Hamura's on Kauai uses shrimp in their saimin broth...but you can come to Puka Dogs!

            1 Reply
            1. re: Mag454

              I can eat seaweed.

              Thanks all for the clarification on the use of the Hawaiian language. Like I said, I really wasn't sure how the language was used on the islands, and now I understand better.

              Even on the mainland, people usually assume shellfish when I mention a fish allergy. The food allergy people claim that fish allergy is as common as shellfish allergy, but even if so it's certainly not as well known!

              Thanks to all for the hints on things to look out for!

            2. Some time back, my wife developed an allergy to bi-valves. Mollusk in a single shell, like abalone and limpets do not seem to bother her. We contact each restaurant and explain this. Our requests are always honored. We have never had an issue in Hawaii, or anywhere else, around the glove. When we check in, they usually mention this. I'd contact each, ahead of time and be specific as to the issue.

              Now, as to smells from the kitchen, that might well be a separate issue, unless you book the entire restaurant for you dinner.

              Good luck, and enjoy,


              1. What about Saimin -- would there usually be fish sauce or stock in the broth?


                4 Replies
                1. re: vermontpurple

                  Absolutely! There is a very high likelihood that saimin will contain fish in the broth, and or as an ingredient of some kind, bonito flakes, kamaboko (fish cake), fish sauce.

                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                    Darn :( do you know of any places on the Big Island or Kauai that would offer a vegetarian saimin so that I can have the opportunity to try this Hawaiian tradition?


                    1. re: vermontpurple

                      Nope. Be really careful if you ask for "vegetarian saimin" because they'll probably just think you mean no pork garnish.

                      1. re: vermontpurple

                        the broth, unless it is being specially made for someone with an allergy, traditionally uses bonito (skipjack tuna) as one of the main flavorings. I've heard of chicken only broth being used, but have no idea where you would find that served regularly.

                        One of the most famous saimin stands is on Kauai, Hamamura's. You might try calling ahead and see if there is anything they can do to accommodate you, but it's doubtful.


                        and to add insult to injury, bonito is a common ingredient in miso soup as well.