Huli Huli Chicken is a special blend of ingredients utilizing an open flame cooking method that is popular on our Islands. For many of our returning guests, it is the go-to meal sought immediately after landing on the island. Anyone who has had a chance to taste it knows how delicious it is, with its amazing combination of spices, sweet and sour elements, and a strong essence of smoky flavor.

traditional method of grilling whole chickens to make huli huli chicken

Traditional Huli Huli cooking method

But can it be replicated at home? Here’s your chance to find out!

With lots of trial, error and success, here is an adaptable recipe that can be adjusted to be gluten-free, organic, and accomplished with or without a barbeque.



Hale Aloha luau food including the huli huli chicken hu

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Hawaiian Lūʻau Party Planning

Click below to view recipes for each of the following Lūʻau favorites:

Kalua Pork                                 Hawaiian Potato Salad               Panikeke

Kalbi-Glazed Short Ribs           Lomi Lomi Salmon                      Koko Alaisa

Poke                                           Coconut Shrimp                           Pani Popo

Shoyu Chicken                          Coconut Bread                             Tropical Pineapple Cake

Mac Nut Chicken                       Palusami                                      Banana Guava Pie

Mahi Mahi                                  Vaifala (Pineapple Drink)            Mango Otai

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“Huli” is Hawaiian for ‘turn’. Therefore “Huli Huli” means many turns. This references the method of cooking a well marinated and glazed chicken while it is constantly turning on a barbeque spit, or within a specialized “cage” over on open flame.

Although marinade and glaze ingredients vary wildly from recipe to recipe available on-line, the basic elements generally include pineapple juice, garlic, ginger, ketchup/tomato sauce, wine or broth, vinegar, and some form of sugar.

Understanding that most households will have difficulty finding a way to accomplish the ‘spit style’ cooking method, I have worked hard to find techniques that can replicate the taste and texture while utilizing more common cooking methods, such as the stove or a gas/charcoal barbeque.


ingredients used to make huli huli chickens

Various items can be substituted to create your own unique version of Huli Huli Chicken


There are many things you can use to create that crispy skinned, smoky, sweet/sour taste that makes Huli Huli Chicken so popular.

If you avoid soy sauce, suggests the following substitutes: h3

  • Gluten-free soy sauce
  • Worcestershire sauce (they suggest the all-natural version – however please note that it is probably not vegan as most use anchovies as an ingredient)
  • Coconut aminos (contains no soy, making it gluten-free)
  • Liquid-smoke (not soy free, however)
  • Fish sauce (obviously not vegan)

For a working replication of smoky meat, use one of the following ingredients: h3

  • Liquid smoke – no more than 1 – 2 drops! (NOTE: If you are vegan, gluten sensitive or looking for all natural, read the label carefully)
  • Smoked paprika
  • Smoked seasoning (my favorite is Webers Smokey Mesquite Seasoning)
  • Or any number of other items found through Google Shopping



  • No reason you cannot use tomato sauce since all the ingredients used to make ketchup is in the sauce.


Cooking wine/sherry 

  • Trust me, the substitution is chicken or vegetable broth


Brown sugar

  • Pure cane sugar
  • Honey (I throw a bit more in there, rather than less, just to make sure the sauce gets syrupy)


To brine or not to brine

Several recipes just start marinating the chicken in the sauce. Others insist that you brine for 12 – 24 hours first. I used the brine method (shown in the recipe) and I’m very pleased with the results


Fresh or canned pineapple

I was very confused. Some recipes insisted on fresh pineapple, others said DON’T DO IT, since fresh pineapple contains enzymes that break down the chicken meat. I’m a fan of all natural, so I went with fresh pineapple. All I can say is that my hubby could not stop talking about how tender and moist the chicken was. I’m going to go with YES on fresh pineapple juice. I used pineapple that I had cut and frozen a few days earlier because I didn’t have a fresh pineapple to get juice from. I simply placed a big handful of chunks in my blender, added barely enough water to get the pineapple to breakdown, and let it go until it was well liquified. I then spooned the slushy-like pineapple into a glass and placed it in the fridge for ½ hour, which allowed time for the liquid to separate. I used the liquid in the recipe, and ate the solids right then and there, a double win for me!


photo of grilled huli huli chicken being brushed with sauce with a spoon 

Spoon or brush chicken with some sauce every time you turn it




Sea salt

1 cup apple cider or rice vinegar



Half your chicken or cut it up in pieces (I suggest half chicken if using the oven and cut up pieces for the barbeque).

preparing the two whole chickens to make Huli Huli chicken

Half your chicken for the oven version (we suggest cutting into pieces for the bbq version)

Rinse carefully. Sprinkle thoroughly with salt (front and back). Place in a large stock pan. Add vinegar, then cover with cool water.

Cover and place in fridge for 12 hours, flipping the chicken once or twice to assure that all sides are well soaked.

NOTE: When rinsing your chicken, ALWAYS make sure that your sink and countertops are well cleaned with vinegar and water before (avoid chemical cleaners) and with a Clorox or anti-germ cleaner after.


traditional method of grilling whole chickens to make huli huli chicken

Sauce ingredients


1 cup of pineapple juice

1 ½ tablespoons freshly grated ginger

1 tablespoon freshly chopped garlic

¼ cup tomato sauce or ketchup

¼ cup honey or brown sugar

¼ cup apple or rice vinegar

½ cup cooking wine or chicken/vegetable stock

¼ cup soy sauce or substitute (see substitution section above). I used Tamarin

1 – 2 drops of liquid smoke or 1 tablespoon smoke seasoning

½ teaspoon paprika



preparing a sweet sauce for the huli huli chicken

Simmer sauce until it thickens


Mix in a saucepan on medium for 20 – 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and checking that it does not burn. You are looking for the sauce to thicken. Let cool for at least ½ hour.

Take the chicken out of the brine, rinse thoroughly. Now place in a clean bowl or Ziploc bag and pour half of the sauce on it. Mix, then place again in the fridge for 3 hours.

Once you’re ready, take the chicken (do NOT rinse this time) and brush it generously with some of the remaining sauce. I like to then add a generous shake of my Weber smoked seasoning, which helps to coat the skin and add a bit more of that smoky flavor right where you want it.

Keep a bowl of the remaining sauce and brush more sauce on every time you flip the chicken during the cooking process.



Heat oven to 375o.

Line a baking pan that is large enough to allow the meat to be separated to obtain that crispy skin that makes it so amazing. The results will be even better if you have a wire rack to place the chicken on over your baking sheet that is built to withstand high heat.

Cook for approximately 30 minutes, remembering to flip (huli) the pieces every 15 minutes and adding another generous coat of sauce to each piece. Turn the temperature up to 400o for a crispy finish for 15 minutes.



Set grill to medium.

It is strongly suggested that you pre-clean and oil the grill before starting. Loose chicken skin combined with the sticky sauce will cause the skin to adhere to the grate. This is not something you want to have to deal with later. (Another suggestion would to be using chicken thighs only, since the skin will surround the meat, making it less likely to break away on a hot grill)

Make sure that you close the lid throughout the cooking process. Try to keep the temperature at 400o, which I was able to accomplish by keeping the burners on medium. Place the chicken evenly spaced across the grill, turning each piece every 10 minutes. Add a brush of sauce with every turn. Grill until it registers at least 120 degrees in the deep, boney area of the thigh; or when cut open, that it shows no redness in the meat nearest the bone.

Your beautiful Huli Huli Chicken is ready to serve!



Bio of Nina S. Jones, Blogger for the Polynesian Culture Center 

Nina S. Jones, blogger for the Polynesian Cultural CenterNina Jones, a mainland gal from way back, is now a transplanted Islander. With her husband of 39 years, she volunteers at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Her hobbies include swimming, traveling, studying and writing about what she is learning from the various Polynesian cultures. Her blogs focus on their history, beliefs, practices and – as an added bonus – delicious food! To her, Polynesia is not just a place to visit, it is a way to live and she is very honored to be able to be a part of their amazing world.