Aloha, loco moco fans!
To tell you the truth, I haven’t eaten authentic loco moco in Hawaii for years and years. Since I started to cut out carbs and eat healthier, the generous scoops of rice drenched in gravy, topped with an American-sized meat patty, with a side scoop of mayonnaise macaroni salad, (ugh) even thinking about loco moco makes me feel bloated and heavy.
Since I’ve always been attracted by the Japan-influenced concept, its goofy name, and all things Hawaii, I decided to create a healthy version of loco moco to share with you. Poof!–out of my imagination, an entirely different monster of a meal was born!Jump to Recipe
What is Loco Moco?
Before I even did the research on this signature Hawaiian dish, I could only assume that the original loco moco had roots from Japan. Even with the Spanish sounding name, and what at first glance looks like mashed potatoes and gravy, everything else about loco moco says “I’m from Japan.”
The story goes, kids from a sports club were eating at the Lincoln Grill in Hilo, Hawaii. They wanted to eat something inexpensive that wasn’t a sandwich, so they asked Nancy, one of the proprietors, if she could put a hamburger patty over a bowl of rice with some gravy. Apparently, the egg on top came later.
The teenagers named the dish “Loco Moco” after one of their members, George Okimoto, whose nickname was “Crazy”. George Takahashi, who was studying Spanish at Hilo High School, suggested using “loco”, which is Spanish for crazy. They tacked on “moco” which rhymed with loco and sounded good at the time…
(If you’re Spanish-speaking, you’re probably wondering if “moco” refers to the runny egg yolk or the the gravy.)
A new healthy Loco Moco
Originally, I wanted to make it 100% vegetarian.
When I first came up with the idea, I imagined it with a veggie burger patty, like my favorite black bean and beet burger lettuce wraps at Down to Earth Supermarket in Honolulu.
The one problem– I went to the Aeon supermarket where I usually buy organic beets…
Ahh!– Where were the beets?
Of course, it’s the first week of September– they’re not in season.
Beets are not that easy to find in Japan to begin with, neither are store-bought veggie burgers. And just for your information, my pun also got lost in translation. (;
As an alternative to going veggie, I used my favorite minced jidori free-range chicken, which I stuffed with diced renkon lotus root. This reduced the amount of meat I used to make the patty and added some crunchy texture.
My friend, Luke, posted on Facebook how he’s keeping track of his meat consumption to reduce the overall amount of red meat, chicken, and fish he’s eating for environmental reasons. I liked that idea.
A blueprint (above): drawing a sketch made it much easier to figure out how I wanted my loco moco to look on the plate. Visualizing each vertical layer, I decided which ingredients should go where based on their shape, texture, taste, and temperature.
“Redesign” of a classic Hawaiian Dish
I wanted this dish to be a multiple-sensory experience, a journey from top to bottom. I envisioned each bite being a new combination or contrast for your senses: crispy with soft, warm with crunchy, salty on creamy. To truly enjoy its rewards, you would have to slow down, like dancing the hula with your spoon, and learn to experience your meal mindfully.
Ingredients for Healthy Loco Moco
Starting at the Base–
After creating my last recipe for cauliflower fried rice, I still wanted to experiment more with cauliflower rice.
This time, I made the cauliflower rice with coconut oil rather than grass-fed butter so I would feel more like I was on a tropical island vacation.
Another inspiration I had from Hawaii, I wanted to build up the layers of ingredients vertically like a volcano, you know, with melting yolk lava on top (see pictures towards the end of this post.)
I used orange cauliflower for the base, because that’s what was on sale. Sprinkled with a bit dried nori seaweed flakes, I built two crisscrossed stacks of pickled daikon radish, like if you were making a beach hut or a log cabin.
For one more crispy vegetable layer and some color, I made a platform of thin cucumber slices for the renkon-chicken burger patty to sit on.
Grilled onions on top of the patty, half an avocado, all smothered in extra virgin olive oil– and finally, the lava-spewing crater, I topped the summit with a fried egg, diced tomato, and green onion.
Stack up those Veggies to the Sky
We love eating foods that come in multi-layers: layered cake, high-end chocolate pastries, parfaits, ice cream sundaes, double cheeseburgers, lasagna…
The layers represent luxury, indulgence, and “special treat” in our brains.
You can dig down through the eight-layers of this loco moco, mixing the different textures and flavors on your spoon: warm, caramelized onion, refreshing cucumber, and avocado drizzled in olive oil. Indulge! The one difference is, it’s all healthy.
I hope you try it and then invent some layers of your own! It’s easier to make than you might think.
The best part is you can make yourself a giant loco moco like this, as high as you can without it toppling over, and you’ll still be sticking to your healthy diet, guilt-free!
Loco Moco? Where’s the gravy?
Towards the top–
I smothered my healthy loco moco in olive oil as my gravy.
Yes, I know it’s a cop-out. Olive oil is so easy and makes everything it touches taste good.
Midway through creating this recipe, I considered making a low-carb gravy out of chickpeas. It was a good idea, but I didn’t have enough time… or chickpeas.
When I can’t find an ingredient and I know looking further will only waste time, I make do with what I can find and whatever is fresh and in season.
I have no doubt that even a smear of store-bought hummus under your meat or veggie patty would be amazing.
Another idea: I’d also recommend grilling mushrooms with the onions– that could even be turned into gravy. Your secret sauce!
How to make healthy, low-carb Loco Moco
Loco Moco with Cauliflower Rice
Cauliflower Rice Ingredients
- ½ head cauliflower medium-sized
- 1 tbsp extra virgin coconut oil
- 2-4 pinches dried nori seaweed flakes
Loco Moco Ingredients
- ¼ daikon radish cut into 8-10 thin sticks
- 1 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 10-12 slices Japanese cucumber thinly sliced
- 3 slices renkon lotus root, diced
- 100 grams minced chicken = 3.5 oz (about ¼ lb)
- ½ sweet onion medium size
- 1-2 tbsp butter
- ½ avocado medium to large size, thinly sliced
- 1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2-3 dashes matcha-flavored salt regular sea salt ok too!
- 1 free-range egg
- 2-3 cherry tomatoes, diced
- green onion, diced as garnish
- ground pepper
- leafy green lettuce or mixed greens on the side
Pickled Daikon Radish Prep
- Chop a small section of daikon radish (approx. 4 in / 10 cm long).
- Cut daikon into thin sticks (approx. 4 in / 10 cm long).
- Put daikon sticks into a small bowl.
- Add rice vinegar and salt.
- Cover and let sit 30 minutes (or the time you are prepping and cooking).
Cauliflower Rice Prep and Cooking
- Finely chop cauliflower with a knife, box shredder, or food processor.
- Add cauliflower to a small saucepan.
- Add coconut oil and mix.
- Cover saucepan with lid and cook on low heat for approx. 10 min. Stir occasionally. *
- When cauliflower becomes tender, turn off heat and let sit with the cover on.
Hamburger Prep and Cooking
- Dice renkon lotus root.
- Cook renkon on low heat until it begins to brown.
- Place renkon in a small bowl. Add minced chicken.
- Using your hands, mix renkon and minced chicken to form a patty.
- Slice onion into medium size chunks and set aside.
- In a frypan, cook hamburger patty on low to medium-low heat.
- Add onion chunks and 1 tbsp of butter around the circumference of burger patty.
- Stir onions and flip burger when bottom side begins to brown.
- When burger is cooked through and onions are golden brown, turn off heat. Keep burger and onions in the pan to keep warm.
- Slice cucumbers and ½ avocado. Set aside.
- Dice cherry tomatoes and green onions. Set aside.
Building Your Loco Moco
- Spoon cauliflower rice onto a plate and garnish with lettuce or greens.
- Sprinkle cauliflower rice with dried nori seaweed flakes.
- Using chopsticks or your fingers, place pickled daikon radish sticks on top of the cauliflower rice in two rows crisscrossing to make a grid pattern.
- Place slices of cucumber on top of the daikon to make a flat surface (or floor). Extra cucumber can be added to the lettuce as a garnish.
- Take one half of avocado. Remove pit and slice avocado thinly inside the shell.
- Using a spatula, place burger patty on top of cucumber layer.
- Use spatula to carefully top burger with caramelized onion.
- Using a spoon or hand, place avocado slices on top of onions, with the flat side of the avocado facing down.
- Drizzle olive oil on top of avocado and other layers.
- Sprinkle matcha salt on avocado and a little on the cauliflower rice.
- Add butter to the same frypan–fry egg "sunny side up".
- Add diced cherry tomato, green onion, and ground pepper on top of egg.
Loco Moco– A Hawaiian volcano lava flow
If you liked this healthy recipe, you may be interested in these ones as well:
Or these guides to healthy restaurants in and around Waikiki:
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1) How many calories are in loco moco?
A ground beef patty, two giant scoops of white rice, sunny-side-up egg, and all that doused in gravy. As you can easily guess, loco moco is no diet food. It's a hearty meal that can easily total up to more than a 1000 calories.
On their website, L & L Hawai'i Loco Moco comes in at a whopping 1369 calories. Their loco moco has two hamburger patties over rice, topped with brown gravy, and two fried eggs. I'm not certain if that amount also includes the macaroni salad side that's pictured.
If you've ever seen the portion sizes in Hawaii, you'd understand why i's 1369 calories. If you make a traditional loco moco with a small portion of rice and one hamburger patty, you could half the number of calories you're consuming.
2) Is loco moco Hawaiian or Japanese?
Loco Moco is a Hawaiian comfort food. The bed of sticky white rice under the beef patty is very similar to a donburi rice bowl in Japan.
If you were convinced that loco moco was Japanese, you're not entirely wrong. It's commonly believed that the dish was invented by Japanese-Hawaiian residents in Hilo, on the Big Island.
Like other Hawaiian dishes like poke, loco moco was influenced by Japanese-style cooking. Japanese immigrants made the bento box popular, which would later become the Hawaiian staple, “plate lunch.” By the early 20th century, the Japanese were the largest ethnic group and rice became the third largest crop in the islands (Noh Foods).
It's believed that the loco moco was invented at the Lincoln Grill. Its proprietors were named Richard and Nancy Inouye. Inoue is the 16th most common Japanese surname. So it's safe to assume the inventors of loco moco are of Japanese descent.
3) What is loco moco gravy made from?
Traditionally, loco moco in Hawaii is a brown mushroom gravy made with pan drippings or beef broth. When comparing recipes, these are common ingredients I found:
1) beef stock (broth)
2) Worcestershire sauce
3) Kosher salt
4) soy sauce
5) garlic powder (or cloves)
6) a neutral oil
8) ground black pepper
9) sweet onion
In Japan, loco moco is typically topped with a brown gravy made from ketchup and tonkatsu or Worcestershire sauce (Just One Cookbook).
My healthy loco moco recipe doesn't use gravy. I top mine with extra virgin olive oil instead.
4) When should I eat loco moco?
If it's your first time visiting Hawaii, you should definitely try traditional loco moco. It's not my favorite local dish, but you've gotta try it at least once.
Going to a local dinner like Rainbow Drive is an experience in itself. The portion sizes are huge. It's better to go with family or friends so you can share.
If you use this loco moco recipe with simple ingredients, it's super healthy. You can eat it all the time and it won't derail your otherwise healthy diet. If you want to make it vegetarian, I'd recommend using a black bean, beet, or mushroom burger. That would taste amazing!
5) Why is it called loco moco?
The nickname of one of the first teenage boys to try the dish was "Crazy". One of the other boys, George Takahashi, was studying Spanish at Hilo High School at the time. He suggested "loco", crazy in Spanish, for the name of the dish.
Moco rhymed with loco. It sounded great. That's basically the story. It's generally believed the dish got its name when they were eating the dish at Lincoln Grill Restaurant, across from where the boys played sports.
Loco got his nickname because he was known for his crazy dares that he'd do, like drinking a bottle of tabasco. (East Bay Times)
A Taste of Hawaii at Home
The lesson I learned–
It was cloudy all morning. Then, right before it was time for my late afternoon lunch, orangish-red sunbeams pierced through the gray clouds and lit up my dining room table like a tiki torch (see picture above).
I wasn’t actually in Hawaii when I ate this for lunch– no double rainbows appeared. But while I was eating in a laser light show of sunbeams from my balcony window, it did kind of feel like I was there.
I realized that all those times I daydream of being on vacation in Hawaii, what I’m really after is a state of mind and a feeling.
Mistakenly, I think what I want is a vacation in Hawaii. But what I am truly seeking is the calm, joy, peace, and care-free presence that I feel when I’m there.
Feelings only exists inside of me, right? So technically, I can experience at least a taste of those good vibes anywhere.
If you’re not going to Hawaii anytime soon, I hope this recipe helps bring some “Hawaii” to your life wherever you are in the world.
Aloha and A hui hou (’til next time, my friend)
Pua, my friend who lives in Hawaii helped teach me this lesson. I dedicate this recipe to her.
Note: I’m no idiot. I still want to go there! But first, I need to learn how to find my “Hawaii” at home.
Also special thank you to my friend, “Sunny” Dr. J.! Her love-filled words guide me towards finding my true self. From between the cracks in the clouds is where rainbows are born. If it weren’t for her, you wouldn’t be reading this blog post right now.
In each new recipe is a lesson…
One more thank you… to Mimi, who loves Hawaii, for always seeing my value as person and appreciating the real me, especially the times I didn’t.