A dish that is bound to show up at Hawaiian luaus, salmon lomi-lomi, has a curious name. If you are on vacation in Hawaii and attend a spa, you might get a lomi-lomi massage. In fact, lomi-lomi massage is available in many spas throughout the world. Later, if you attend a luau and find lomi-lomi salmon, you might be a bit confused. Is this the part where they massage you with a salmon? Or, do you get a free massage while eating salmon?
Lomi-lomi is a traditional form of massage, used to relieve stress, both physical and emotional. This is not the only form of massage you might find in Hawaii, but it is ubiquitous.
Lomi means, rub or work with the fingers. It is basically a word for massage. In her Hawaiian Dictionary, Mary Kawena Pukui defines the word lomi as meaning “to rub, press, squeeze, crush, mash fine, knead, massage, rub out; to work in and out, as claws of a contented cat. 1
She gives the name of the dish as kāmano lomi, i’a lomi. Kāmano is Hawaiian for salmon. Of course, you can’t catch salmon in Hawaii. It’s imported from the Northwest coast of America. It is said that Russian sailors first brought salmon to Hawaii, coming from Alaska. Salted salmon or other fish would have certainly been main provision during long voyages.
Salmon may also have been brought back by Hawaiian natives themselves, who from the late 1700’s began taking positions as crewmen on ships involved in the fur trade. 2
Lomi-lomi salmon is traditionally a side-dish made with cured, salted salmon, which is made by covering salmon with salt for eight ours to a couple of days, to remove the moisture and preserve it. The lomi refers to how the ingredients of the dish are rubbed or massaged, or outright mashed into the cubed cured salmon.
The salted salmon is rinsed, diced, and mixed with tomatoes, sweet white onions (such as Maui onion) or scallions, and often served on ice to keep it cold and moist, or in lettuce cups. Other ingredients and seasonings may be added, such as vinegar, or chile peppers. The result is something like the Hawaiian answer to ceviche, although this is not the origin of the dish.
Lomi-lomi is similar to a traditional French Polynesian Tahitian dish called poisson cru, French for “raw fish.” Poisson Cru is fresh tuna or mahi-mahi marinated with lime juice cucumbers, onions and tomatoes, and mixed with coconut cream. Chile peppers are also sometimes added.
Lomi-lomi goes great with another traditional luau dish, poi, which is somewhat like a porridge of boiled taro root.
You can find a basic recipe for lomi-lomi salmon here, including instructions on how to salt your own salmon. Note that the recipe instructs you to simply mix the ingredients instead of mashing them together by hand. Don’t be afraid to be aggressive and break up the ingredients. Do remove the water seeds and pulp from the tomatoes and chop up the outer flesh only, for a more enjoyable dish.
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- Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Samuel H. Elbert. Hawaiian Dictionary: Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian. Honolulu: U of Hawaii, 1991.
- Titcomb, Margaret. “NATIVE USE OF FISH IN HAWAII.” Journal of the Polynesian Society. The Polynesian Society, n.d. Web.