By Matt Villano, on May 9, 2015

Malasada magic

We might as well just refer to malasadas as orbs of happiness. I mean, technically, they’re donut-like Hawaiian delicacies that have descended from Portuguese traditions in the Madeira Islands. But, really, at least the way I see it, they are doughy bits of heaven.

How else to describe the best baked goods in the South Pacific? The donut part is light and fluffy—soft, airy insides enrobed by a thin and slightly crunchy shell. Then, of course, there’s the sugar. Thousands of granules of crystallized sugar on every one. So much crystallized sugar that it’s impossible to eat malasadas and surf Facebook on your phone, so much that you cannot pick up a donut and raise it to your mouth without covering your entire hand in tiny crystals (which, of course, you then must lick off).

Over the course of 16 visits to Hawaii, I’ve driven hours for malasadas, made new friends over them, and leveraged them as a way to bond with my kids. I’ve eaten a whole box in one sitting. I’ve flown with them. Heck, one time, while late-night snacking during a writing bender, I even fell asleep cradling one like a small child. (Seriously. That is a true story. You don’t actually want photographic proof.)

The bottom line is that these donuts—these tiny, seemingly innocuous dough balls—have become an irreplaceable part of my Hawaii experience. In short, I simply cannot visit Hawaii without eating them.

Which is exactly why my most recent trip to Maui revolved around malasadas. I was there with the rest of the Expedia Viewfinder team; we were there to bond with each other and with the island itself. When it became clear a trip to get malasadas wasn’t part of the formal plan, I rounded up some friends and went off-script. What ensued was a journey across Maui hat included excitement, anticipation, disappointment, drama, resourcefulness, and, finally, delight. A microcosm of life, really. All for one taste.

Viewfinder Tip: Call ahead to confirm your favorite malasada shop is open before leaving your hotel. Sometimes stores can close unexpectedly, for no reason at all.

Mecca of malasadas

At first, our goal was simple: To transcend culinary reality at the Mecca of malasadas on Maui, T. Komoda Store & Bakery. This ramshackle little shop, smack in the middle of the Upcountry town of Makawao, has been making malasadas for almost 100 years (thanks to the founder, Takezo Komoda). The Komoda family’s take on the traditional recipe yields a donut that is more square than spherical. They also make different varieties; in addition to plain malasadas, they have some with guava jelly, and others with different flavors of custard.

Komoda’s (as locals call it) isn’t only about malasadas. They also make cream puffs, breads, muffins, and more. One of the real crowd-pleasers is something called “Donut on a Stick,” which amounts to a shish kebab of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkin-sized glazed donuts.

Between selling malasadas and all of these other goodies, Komoda’s is so popular that it opens its doors at 7 a.m. daily and all of the donuts usually are gone within hours. If you walk in after 10 a.m. and ask for malasadas, the Aunties (that is, the 70- and 80-something women who run the show there) openly laugh in your face. I only know this because previously I’ve arrived at 9 a.m., only to be turned away. On that (horrible) day, I vowed I’d never make the same mistake again.

So we left our hotels—the Grand Wailea and the Fairmont Kea Lani—early. And we caravaned up the volcano. The whole way up, I salivated at the thought of that chewy dough in my mouth, and became giddy at the thought of my hands covered with sugar. I regaled my friends with stories about what they were about to experience. We were stoked! We were ready! Our stomaches were primed for serious workouts!

But when we arrived at Komoda’s, it was closed.

A sign explained the closure—something about Easter break and the family taking a holiday. The rational part of me understood perfectly; even malasada wizards need time off. But the emotional part of me was enraged. If I couldn’t eat a malasada soon, I might eat a small child. (Or something like that.)

The author, with an Auntie at Home Maid

Home Maid: the backup

Then I remembered: A food friend once told me about another malasada place on Maui, in Wailuku. A quick Google search set me straight: Home Maid Bakery. Only 30 minutes away.

And so our caravan of bloggers headed back down the volcano. Past Haliimaile. Around Paia. Through Kahului. Toward the end of the drive, one of our crew was downright hangry (for the uninitiated, this means she was so hungry, she was angry). Finally, we smelled it: Sweet. Fried. Dough. Both literally and figuratively, we had arrived.

The place was hopping when we walked in. Locals had lined up to purchase everything from mocha and manju, various flavors of pouch-like cookies with flavored fillings inside (think dumplings, only made out of cookie dough). Of course they also had come for the malasadas.

While Komoda’s sells most of its malasadas individually, Home Maid is all about the dozen. The Wailuku shop also bakes them to order—a nice touch, especially considering that few food experiences can top the steamy awesomeness of biting into a piping-hot malasada. We ordered four dozen (two plain, two cream-filled) for our team of 20. Then we ordered two dozen (one of each) more.

In the wait that followed, we got to know some of the women behind the counter—all of whom were (understandably) skeptical of our excitement over our forthcoming cache. While others took photos, I poked around the store, observing stainless steel bakery racks, Formica countertops, and signage that likely was created around the time of the Cuban Missle Crisis. The more I looked, the more it dawned on me that Home Maid likely hasn’t changed that much since it opened in the 1960s. I half expected Marty McFly to pull up in his DeLorean for a sack of manju.

Finally, the Aunties emerged with our malasadas. All six boxes of them. We cheered. We hugged each other. Then we hugged the Aunties. None of us could wait to get to the cars to dive in; we popped open two of the boxes and inhaled samples right there in the store.

Then we groaned and mmmmm’d loudly in delight. Thankfully we were the only ones in the store.

To be fair, the Home Maid malasadas had nothing on the specimens from Komoda’s. But on that day, in that moment, the provenance of these sweet and scrumptious dough balls didn’t matter one bit. With every donut—every morsel, really—we were diving deeper into Hawaiian culture. And that was the most delicious part of all.

How do you like to experience a destination’s culture through food?