Hawaiian Macaroni Salad

September 30, 2009 | By andrea | Filed in: Pasta, Recipes, Salad, Side Dish, Vegetarian.

If you’ve ever had a Hawaiian plate lunch then you’ve tried this style of macaroni salad. It’s slightly tangy, slightly sweet and traditionally served with some sort of pan-Asian main entree like teriyaki beef or kalua pork and a few scoops of white rice. I made it recently for a Hawaiian-themed dinner party that Husband and I attended. Each creamy bite of macaroni salad brought back fond memories of a trip to Hawaii a decade earlier when we feasted on plate lunches almost daily.

I know it sounds like a lot, but don’t hold back on the dressing ingredients. Make the recipe as it is written because the soft macaroni soaks up the dressing and becomes very creamy and delicious.

Hawaiian Macaroni Salad
-recipe from Cook’s Country Magazine

Hawaiians cook their macaroni until it’s “fat,” or very soft. Turns out they know what they’re doing. Here’s what the Test Kitchen discovered:

•While overcooking the pasta seemed like a bad idea, it actually enabled the macaroni to absorb more dressing.
•The dressing had to be thin enough to soak into the pasta. We used an equal amount of mayonnaise and milk, and we used a lot—a full 2 cups each—to get the right texture.
•To prevent the cider vinegar from curdling the milk, we poured the vinegar directly over the hot macaroni.
•After the vinegar soaked in, we poured on about half the dressing, gave the mixture a stir, and let it cool. We then stirred in the remaining dressing and added grated carrot, chopped celery (for crunch), scallion, a bit of brown sugar, and some vigorous shakes of salt and black pepper.
•Don’t use low-fat milk or mayonnaise because it will make the dressing too thin.

Serves 8 to 10

2 cups whole milk 
2 cups mayonnaise 
1 tablespoon brown sugar  
 Salt and pepper  
1 pound elbow macaroni  
1/2 cup cider vinegar  
4 scallions , sliced thin 
1 large carrot , peeled and grated 
1 celery rib , chopped fine 

MAKE DRESSING: Whisk 1½ cups milk, 1 cup mayonnaise, sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons pepper in bowl.

COOK PASTA: Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta and cook until very soft, about 15 minutes. Drain pasta and return to pot. Add vinegar and toss until absorbed. Transfer to bowl. Cool pasta 10 minutes, then stir in dressing until pasta is well coated. Cool completely.

MAKE SALAD: Add scallions, carrot, celery, remaining milk, and remaining mayonnaise to pot with pasta mixture and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl and refrigerate, covered, for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days. Serve.

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26 comments on “Hawaiian Macaroni Salad

  1. Amy says:

    I am craving this, so I did a search and I ended up right here, so I know it will be good. Love it!!!

  2. Chris L. says:

    Andrea, I just wanted to let you know that I grew up in Hawaii, and was looking for this recipe. You really got it right! There was one change I made, and that was to increase the brown sugar…alot! I added about 1/4 cup more.

  3. Nicole says:

    I am going to attempt to make this and am considering adding a little bit of crushed pineapple to it. Have you done that, yet?

  4. beth says:

    thanks for this recipe, this is the best. I ‘ve been trying to play around with the recipe that I had, but this one is the most accurate, the tangy taste (cider) make it authentic.

  5. Jason says:

    Um guys… “Real” Hawaiian mac salad does not contain vinegar, sugar or pineapple. It’s basically macaroni, mayo (best foods), salt and pepper. Some places put a little mustard but not enough to overpower taste or color. The vinegar based mac salads are more “haole” style and are never served at plate lunch places in Hawaii.

    Da Real Hawaiian

  6. Leslie says:


  7. Eric says:

    Having never lived in Hawaii, only visited, I won’t claim to be the expert like Jason, but I can tell you I know good macaroni salad, and this is the best I’ve had!

  8. andrea says:

    After doing a little more research on Hawaiian Mac Salad, I found an article from Hawai’i Magazine that states: “Once you learn the basics, the recipe can be adapted into an endless array of variations depending on your individual tastes.” The recipe in this article called for some vinegar and pickle relish, carrots, celery or hardboiled eggs as add-ins — whatever suits you.

    The recipe that I’ve posted here for Hawaiian Macaroni Salad is from Cook’s Country. The fine folks at America’s Test Kitchen did the recipe testing and this is the recipe they came up with. We love it…hopefully you will, too. Happy cooking!

  9. Buck says:

    I lived in Hawaii for a couple of years and have always been trying to duplicate the mac salad that i so enjoyed on the many plate lunches i consumed there. This recipe is the best one yet. It’s hard to believe that true hawaiian mac salad only has mayo and pasta, as jason stated, i disagree, the vinegar is the key. Very good recipe, great job Andrea?

  10. andrea says:

    Glad you liked it, Buck! We can thank the good people at America’s Test Kitchen for coming up with the recipe! 🙂

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  12. Cindie says:

    I enjoyed it but I did make a few tweaks.
    I only used 1/2 the amount of vinegar and 1/2 the amount of milk. More milk would have made it soggy and 1/2 the vinegar was perfect. I also added 2 more celery stalks b/c I like the extra crunch… and I added more brown sugar. Still a great recipe! Creamy and delish!

  13. Dan says:

    I grew up next door to a Japanese family from Kona and this recipe is dead-on…although, I did add what they used to put in this amazing mac salad.
    Frozen peas and canned tiny shrimp. Thanks

  14. Kapena Chong says:

    I was born and raised in Hawaii. Mom’s from Molokai; Dad’s from Hilo. Chinese/Hawaiian/Portuguese/Filipino plantation ancestry. Brown sugar and vinegar? Never! As Jason says, mayo, salt and pepper only. Some folks put mustard (I do, just a touch). Variations include addition of tuna, shrimp, peas, shredded carrots. Also add chopped celery or frozen peas, and diced onions if you like. Top off with spinkled paprika over the top. Brown sugar and vinegar — unheard of… Not saying it’s wrong or doesn’t taste good (personally I wouldn’t know) — just saying it’s not “hawaiian.”

  15. andrea says:

    So maybe the Cook’s Country version of Hawaiian Mac Salad isn’t exactly authentic. I’m not sure how they came up with the recipe. Like any popular dish, though, there’s a bazillion ways to make it. Authentic or not, this one is very flavorful.

  16. Aulani says:

    I too grew up in Hawaii, Portuguese/Hawaiian from windward Oahu. There is no set way to make Hawaiian style macaroni salad because it depends on your own culture. My aunty who is of Japanese descent put Ajinomoto (Accent) in hers, but I don’t like that stuff because it is msg. My mother put celery, carrots and onion which seems to be the most common ingredients. Cider vinegar, yes, for the tang. And it has to be Best Foods (Hellmans) mayo. Gotta be. Andrea, I do like your recipe, but I put less sugar.

  17. Kim says:

    Been in Hawai’i a long, long time and am a Mac salad maniac! There are as many “right” versions of Mac salad as there are plate lunch counters, Zippy’s restaurants, Aunties, Uncles and Tutus who make it!
    The recipe belongs to ALL of the people who love it!

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  19. Pua says:

    Aloha Andrea:

    I’m Hawai’i born and raised, and like Kapena and Jason, I poo-poo’ed the vinegar and sugar in the recipe. Yep, I thought, that’s all “haole-fied”. But, the overcooking of the mac and the Best Foods mayo only part was right on. HOWEVER (and I hope that Kapena and Jason are reading this), I made the recipe and it’s TOTALLY “brok da mout onolicious!” (It’s awesome) and went perfect with two scoops rice and grilled teri chicken. No pilikia! So, like Kim said, there is no “right” version and my tutu always said, “if it’s made with ALOHA…it’s Hawaiian.” Thanks for sharing!

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  21. Allison says:

    While I did read the recipe all the way thorough before making this, it would be helpful in the ingredient list to note how they’re used or separated. For example: 1 c mayonnaise for the dressing, plus 1 c after. Similarly the total amount of milk is split in two sections of the recipe (1 1/2 c in the dressing, 1/2 c later).

    It turned out yummy regardless!

  22. Jordon says:

    I lived in Hawai’i for two years and ate at every lunch plate place you could think of on each of the islands as well as hundreds of neighborhood luaus. I made this recipe out of curiosity because of its unusual ingredients. I can tell you for a fact that this tastes NOTHING like any mac salad I ever ate in Hawai’i. The cider vinegar is the culprit in ruining this recipe. Some people might like this version of mac salad but I can confidently say that this is not a Hawaiian recipe.

  23. Hokulani says:

    Wow! hot topic. As many of the other readers I am passionate about my Hawaiian food. I’m gonna give this recipe a try just out of curiosity, kindled by the wide variety of opinions. I’ll let you know how it goes. And since I’m making it for a group of haoles who have never had a real plate lunch, they won’t know the difference anyway.

  24. maryfrances says:

    I am adding sweet pickles and calling it mackinac island macaroni salad.

  25. andrea says:

    Good job in making the recipe your own!

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