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American Table

A Hawaiian History of Sweet Breads

They were born in Portuguese homes and raised in Hawaiian bakeries.
By Published May 22, 2018

By the time the time Mrs. M.F. de Rego took top honors in the “Portuguese sweet bread” category at the 1919 Maui Fair, sweet rolls and breads were as Hawaiian as slow-roasted pork and plate lunches. But like many popular Hawaiian foods, they weren't exactly native.

Sweetened breads came to the islands with the Portuguese immigrants who flooded Hawaii in the mid-to-late 19th century to work the livestock ranches and sugarcane plantations. The newcomers were embraced by the business community—as Honolulu newspaper The Pacific Commercial Advertiser dubiously editorialized in 1878, “Those employing [the Portuguese immigrants] prefer them to any other laborers because they never get drunk . . .”

By 1910, another Honolulu newspaper, The Democrat, counted the number of Portuguese immigrants in Hawaii at more than 20,000. Many of these families baked their own breads using recipes brought from home, but when refined sugar was scarce or expensive (most of the sugar produced on the islands was destined for export), they used local ingredients like honey and pineapple juice as sweeteners.

Shortly before Hawaii became a state in 1959, Japanese-American Robert Taira opened Robert’s Bakery in Hilo, where bakers specialized in sweet Portuguese-style breads. A move to King Street in Honolulu a decade later prompted a name change to King’s Bakery, and distribution soared. Mainlanders took to transporting the breads home as souvenirs; they became so popular in California that King’s eventually moved its center of operations to Torrance, California, spurring another name change to King’s Hawaiian.

Today, a few families continue to bake Portuguese-style sweetened breads in large, hive-shaped outdoor ovens built by hand, particularly in the Kona region on the Big Island. Local kiawe wood, which burns hot and slow, is the preferred fuel.


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