Photos by: .PhotoResourceHawaii
Luau in Hawaii
Like luau food (Hawaiian food), a luau is a must for any first-timer to Hawaii. Classic luaus typically pair a festive, Island-style banquet of titanic proportions with pan-Polynesian music and dance performances. Usually held under the stars, it can (and should!) last all evening.
Good fun, absolutely—but is the luau in any way authentically Hawaiian, is luau food prepared authentically, are dances traditional, or is it just another gimmick cooked up for tourists?
History of the Luau
The luau does indeed trace its roots to ancient Hawaii, when important occasions would be honored with a special feast steeped in traditions, taboos and symbolism. Perhaps foremost among its purposes, the luau was meant to not only bring people together, but also bond them together. “Luau” is in fact the name of a popular dish once commonly shared at these gatherings. Up until the mid-1800s, a luau was called an aha aina or paina, loosely meaning “meal gathering” or “feast.” For centuries, luaus were held on large, finely woven lauhala mats that were laid on the ground and decorated with fresh leaves, flowers and ferns. Guests sat or reclined on either side of the spread, communally dipping into wooden bowls and platters filled with an endless variety of favorite foods and condiments. This was the standard style of presentation right into the 20th century.
Guests at a traditional luau would have especially looked forward to luau food staples – the poi and pig dishes. Poi, a nutritious, thick paste pounded from the taro root, was also a staple in the Hawaiian diet, but more importantly considered a sacred link to the origin of the Hawaiian people. Even today, poi is treated with great respect in the Islands. As for the pig, it had spent that entire day cooking whole in the ground, resulting in incredibly tender and juicy pork meat. The unveiling of the cooked pig is still a highlight of any proper luau, and the main dish of the luau food dinner menu.
Historical Luaus in Hawaii
How festive can a luau get? One of the largest luaus ever held in Hawaii was in 1847, to celebrate the 50th birthday of King Kamehameha III. More than 1,500 guests were invited and fed in shifts of 500. The feast required no less than 271 hogs, 482 large calabashes of poi, 3,125 salted fish, 1,820 fresh fish, 2,245 coconuts and 4,000 taro plants, for starters!
More than 150 years since that monumental event, Hawaii’s people still love to throw a luau for everything from baby’s first birthday to anniversaries, graduations and fundraisers. We socialize, laugh, share classic Island dishes, bring out the ukulele or guitar, sing, even get up and dance hula. But amidst the fun, we also take the luau seriously. Through it we feel an emotional connection to long faded, yet still venerated, ancient traditions—and to each other.
Visitor luaus offer up the same spirit of aloha and togetherness—plus go the extra mile with fun add-ons such as mai tais, tiki torches and Samoan fire-knife dancing. Sit next to strangers at a luau, and you can’t help but be friends by the end of the evening. And that’s really the point.
So—cooked up for tourists? Nope. Luaus are the real deal.
Now that you know a little bit about the history of the luau, relax and enjoy yours! Get your fill of luau food, hula, music, and of course a few cocktails, and take home golden memories of a true Hawaiian tradition (minus the mini umbrellas in your mai tai).
A LUAU PRIMER
Wear: Relaxed alohawear or resortwear.
See: The unveiling of the pig from the imu, or underground oven.
Eat: The pig, aka kalua pork dish; dip each bite into the poi to temper the pork’s saltiness. If served, also try the lomi lomi salmon, chicken long rice, lau lau and haupia. Luau food is so ono (delicious)!