This easy and authentic Hawaiian Mac Salad with Tuna is one of my absolute favorite recipes! It's creamy, tangy, a little sweet, and goes with literally everything. It's the perfect side dish for a BBQ or cookout!
Authentic Hawaiian Mac Salad
I'm a huge lover of pasta salad, and Hawaiian style macaroni salad is probably my absolute favorite. It's creamy and flavorful, but also pairs perfectly with any protein. That's why it's so popular in Hawaii!
Hawaii is famous for its plate lunches. First, you choose a protein like kalua pork or shoyu chicken. Then you get a scoop of mac salad and two scoops of white rice served alongside it. The soft macaroni soaks up some of the meat sauce and adds another layer of sweetness and tanginess. It rounds out the entire meal and is just the perfect side dish. I'm drooling just thinking about it!
This version of Hawaiian Macaroni Salad gets another layer of flavor.. tuna! It's a very popular add-in, for obvious reasons. It not only adds a briny, salty flavor, but it also punches up the protein in case you want to enjoy the macaroni salad on its own. It's ono, as they say in Hawaii!
Why You'll Love It
- Budget friendly: According to Hawaiian mac salad's origin stories, locals substituted European-style potato salad with elbow macaroni because of its affordability. This recipe capitalizes on that principle by using mostly fridge and pantry staples!
- Great for a party: This recipe is undoubtedly a crowd pleaser. It's easy to double or triple, so make sure to bring this to your next holiday, BBQ, cookout, potluck, or luau!
- Easy: This pasta salad is very simple to make! Prep and cook time is minimal - the hardest part is just letting it sit in the fridge.
- Elbow pasta: Macaroni or elbow pasta is the classic shape for authentic Hawaiian Mac Salad.
- Apple cider vinegar: A splash of vinegar helps adds flavor to the freshly cooked macaroni. It also tames the raw onion flavor.
- Shredded carrots: I buy the pre-shredded bag for convenience. Use kitchen shears to give them a rough cut.
- Onion: Grated onion is traditional as well! It adds another layer of flavor without the raw bite of a diced onion.
- Mayonnaise: The type of mayonnaise you use is very important in Hawaiian style salad. Hellman's (also called Best Foods) mayo is an absolute must for the most authentic flavor and creaminess. But I like to sneak in a little Kewpie mayonnaise too. This Japanese mayo has more egg yolks and seasonings so it's ultra creamy and flavorful.
- Sugar: A touch to balance the vinegar and richness.
- Milk: Helps soften the mayo for a creamy dressing.
- Tuna: I recommend using a can that has less or no salt added. I always look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) blue stamp of approval for sustainable tuna as well.
- Green onion: Adds a fresh, colorful element.
How To Make It
- Cook the pasta. Elbow or macaroni pasta is traditional, but you can use any short pasta shape you'd like. Cook it 1-2 minutes more than package instructions. It should be lightly past al dente and soft, but not mushy. Then drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.
- Season the pasta. While the pasta is warm, add the apple cider vinegar, grated onion, and shredded carrots. Stir to combine, then wrap with plastic wrap and let cool in the fridge for 10-15 minutes.
- Make the dressing. In the meantime, whisk together the two mayonnaises, sugar, milk, salt, and pepper. It should pourable, creamy, and smooth. Add more milk if needed to reach this consistency.
- Dress the macaroni. Reserve a small portion of the dressing but add the rest to the pasta, along with the drained tuna. Mix very well and season with salt and pepper to taste. Store in the fridge for at least an hour to chill.
- Serve. When ready to serve, stir in the reserved dressing to make creamy again. Garnish with green onion.
- Grate the onion with the large holes of a box grater. This method works better than the food processor, and also results in less waste. One small onion should make ¼ cup. Remove any excess liquid so the pasta salad doesn't get watery.
- Cook the macaroni 1-2 minutes past what the boxy says. In Hawaiian mac salad, the soft and lightly bloated pasta is a signature component! This also allows it to absorb more of the dressing.
- Rinse the cooked pasta with cold water and drain it as much as possible. We want to "shock" the pasta so it'll stop cooking, but make sure it isn't too wet or else the dressing will slide off.
- Let the macaroni cool in the fridge before mixing in the mayonnaise. If the pasta is too warm, it'll absorb more of the dressing over time. It'll result in a spotty and dry looking macaroni salad.
- Reserve a portion of the mayonnaise dressing so you can make it ultra creamy before serving. If the mac salad still looks dry after sitting in the fridge, stir in a splash of milk until creamy again.
Substitutions & Variations
- Although elbow pasta is classic for Hawaiian salad, you can use any short pasta you'd like. In Hawaii, it's also common to cut spaghetti strands to make short noodles.
- If you don't have Kewpie mayonnaise, add another ¼ cup Hellman's or Best Foods mayonnaise.
- Make a 50/50 potato and mac salad. Dice and boil some potatoes, double the dressing, and stir it all together!
- Some popular add-ins to Hawaiian mac salad are peas, imitation crab, kamaboko (fish cake), hard-boiled eggs, or relish.
Storing & Freezing
Storing: If you have leftover Hawaiian style mac salad, store it in an airtight container in the fridge for up 5 days. Serve cold or slightly cool.
Freezing: I would not recommend freezing it due to the mayonnaise.
Make It In Advance: This pasta salad is a great dish to make in advance of your event! Cook as directed up to 3 days in advance and store in the fridge until you're ready to serve.
One of my favorite things about Hawaii is that it's a huge melting pot of cultures. History has it that European chefs started working in the hotels and popularized potato salad by placing it on their menus. Locals replaced potatoes with macaroni because of its affordability and shelf-stability, and voila! For more history on Hawaiian mac salad, I love Taste Cooking's article.
Watery mac salad will have unpleasant texture and diluted flavor so be careful with how much liquid you're adding in. Make sure to remove any excess liquid from the cooked pasta and grated onion. Also, for the mayonnaise dressing, start with 1 tablespoon milk and only add more if it's too thick. It's better to have dry mac salad and reinvigorate it later on with more mayo and milk.
Make sure to heavily salt the water the pasta is cooking in and season the mayonnaise dressing. Taste everything as well! The mac salad will taste different when it's initially mixed together and after it's been sitting in the fridge for a few hours. Season to taste at both times.
Looking For More?
If you're in search for more great side dishes to go with your BBQ, potluck, or party, try these:
- German Potato Salad (Vegan)
- Pea, Burrata, and Prosciutto Pasta Salad
- Kimchi Deviled Eggs
- Pasta Salad
- Air Fryer Parmesan Potato Wedges
- Tortellini Caprese
Hawaiian Mac Salad with Tuna
- 8 oz elbow pasta
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup shredded carrots
- ¼ cup shredded onion about 1 small onion
- 1 cup Hellman's or Best Mayo mayonnaise
- ¼ cup Kewpie mayonnaise
- 1½ tablespoon white granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1 (5 oz) can tuna drained (no salt added recommended)
- 1-2 green onion thinly sliced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add elbow pasta and cook for 1-2 minutes longer than box instructions. Pasta should be well-done and soft, but not mushy. Drain, rinse with cold water, and transfer to a large bowl.
- To the cooked pasta, add the apple cider vinegar, carrots, and onion. Stir well and let sit for 10-15 minutes in the fridge.
- In a separate bowl, whisk the two mayonnaises, sugar, milk, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Set ¼ cup of the dressing aside and store in the fridge.
- Add the drained tuna and mayonnaise dressing to the macaroni. Mix to combine and season to taste. Let sit in the fridge for at least 1 hour, but overnight would be best.
- When ready to serve, add the reserved dressing and half the green onion to the macaroni salad and stir to combine. Garnish with the remaining green onion. Serve cold or room temperature.
- How to grate onion: I recommend using the large holes on a box grater rather than a food processor. Make sure to squeeze out and drain any excess liquid before adding it to the pasta.
- If you don't have Kewpie mayonnaise, substitute for more Hellman's or Best Foods mayonnaise.
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