In Hawaii, BBQ is a way of life.

“We BBQ year-round here, even in the rain. We grill at home, at the beach, while camping. You can buy marinated meats on skewers ready to go, and the grocery stores sell grills you can take to the beach. BBQ is a great way to gather with friends and family, share food, talk story and unwind.” Speaking is Adrienne Robillard, who grew up in Kailua on the island of Oahua. Her  recipe collection, The ‘Ohana Grill Cookbook, features favourite Hawaiian BBQ recipes that anyone can try at home.

When Robillard was away from Hawaii, what she missed most was the food. “There wasn’t anything like it on the mainland then and still isn’t, flavour-wise and culturally. I’d come back for the summers after moving to the mainland with my mom, and try to get my fill of plate lunch for the year while staying at my dad and stepmom’s.” Plate lunch (pā mea ʻai in Hawaiian) is a unique Hawaïian staple consisting of one barbecued entrée (such as chicken katsu or Kālua pork), two scoops of rice and macaroni salad. The origins of the dish go back to the 1880s, when plantation workers from Japan, China, Portugal and the Philippines shared their meals together. Today, the plate lunch has distinct Asian influences, as well as an American component (the macaroni salad).

It’s a prime example of the melting pot of flavours that is Hawaiian cuisine, blending ingredients and techniques of Polynesian, European and Asian provenance. Hawaiian BBQ, in particular, can be recognised by its typical sweet-tangy sauces and marinades with origins in Asia and the South Pacific.

One of the best-known examples of Hawaiian BBQ is huli huli chicken: a spatchcocked bird barbecued on large grills over mesquite wood and turned over regularly (‘huli’ means ‘to turn’ in Hawaiian). It’s basted with a sweet-savoury sauce, of which the exact ingredients may vary from chef to chef, but it generally contains soy sauce (shoyu), ginger, garlic, pineapple juice, brown sugar, sesame oil and ketchup. 

The dish is credited to the late Ernest Morgado, a Honolulu businessman who started a poultry business in the 1950s, together with chicken farmer Mike Asagi. To promote the business, Morgado made his mother’s teriyaki-inspired chicken; it was an instant hit. Supposedly, as he barbecued chicken on a makeshift spit, onlookers would shout ‘huli’ when the chickens needed rotating and basting, and the dish had a name. Morgado eventually became quite famous for his carefully guarded recipe, as well as for raising a lot of money at charity events selling his huli huli chicken. Now the dish is an everyday staple all over Hawaii. 

In the introduction of her book, Robillard writes of how her mother used to get huli huli chicken right off the smoking grill on the side of the road – a time-honoured dinner tradition that continues today: “I live off of Kalanianaʻole Highway now, and there are a few spots where huli huli chicken is grilled on the roadside on the weekends in Waimanalo. You pull over on your way to or from the beach, or wherever you’re going, and get a chicken hot off the grill. It’s delicious. The way it’s seasoned is unique and ‘ono, ready to take to a potluck or home for lunch.”

Huli huli – sometimes called ‘local style’ – chicken is just one of many delectable renditions of barbecued chicken in Hawaii. If you want to recreate these flavours of the islands at home, especially if you’re a beginner, we suggest starting with Robillard’s BBQ pineapple chicken recipe below, which uses chicken breasts and thighs rather than a full chicken. It also contains a wonderful island ingredient: pineapple. “I love grilling fruit,” says Robillard, “and this recipe makes it easy with the circular slices of pineapple. Plus, the pineapple juice is an excellent ingredient for marinade.”

Pineapple juice works so well as a marinade ingredient because it is a meat tenderiser: an enzyme called bromelain helps soften the muscle fibres, allowing the meat to absorb more moisture from the marinade. The recipe also calls for your favourite barbecue sauce to make a flavourful marinade with soy sauce, sesame oil, fresh ginger and fresh garlic.  

Hawaiian BBQ Pineapple Chicken

Prep time: 25 minutes
Marinate: 2 hours
Grill time: 15 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6


1 (20-ounce) can sliced pineapple in its own juice (not heavy syrup)
1 cup barbecue sauce
1⁄4 cup low-sodium shoyu (soy sauce)
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs
4 tablespoons chopped green onions


This recipe makes use of your favourite barbecue sauce and pineapple, and requires just two hours to marinate, resulting in a tasty sweet, salty and savoury main dish.

1. Remove the pineapple slices from the can and reserve 1⁄2 cup of the juice.

2. To make the marinade, combine the barbecue sauce, 1⁄2 cup of reserved pineapple juice, shoyu, sesame oil, minced garlic, and minced ginger in a small bowl. Reserve 1⁄2 cup of the marinade for later.

3. Brush the pineapple slices on both sides with the olive oil. Set aside.

4. Place the chicken in a gallon-size zip-top bag. Pour the marinade over it and coat evenly. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

5. Preheat a clean and oiled grill to medium heat.

6. Remove the chicken from the marinade and place on the grill. Dispose of the used marinade.

7. Grill for 5 to 7 minutes, turn the chicken over, and baste with the 1⁄2 cup of reserved marinade. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until cooked through.

8. As the second side of the chicken cooks, grill the pineapple slices for about 2 minutes per side, or until grill marks appear.

9. Remove the chicken and pineapple from the grill, and garnish with chopped green onions.

Recipe taken with permission from The ‘Ohana Grill Cookbook: Easy and Delicious Hawai’i-Inspired Recipes from BBQ Chicken to Kalbi Short Ribs, Adrienne Robillard, photography by Dawn Sakamoto Paiva, Ulysses Press (2020)

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