Luau Deconstrution: A Brief History

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When we hear the word luau [loo-ou], most often images of fire dancers, colorful floral t-shirts, and sweet, lip-puckering mai tais come to mind. Though entertaining and fun, these modern festivals bear little resemblance to the traditional celebrations of the native Hawaiians. Originally knows as aha ‘aina (aha meaning gather and ‘aina meaning meal), these feasts were rich with symbolism, kapus (taboos) and the spirit of Aloha. A time of great celebration and feasting, royal aha ‘aina’s might accommodate up to 10,000 guests and a menu including: 271 hogs, 482 gourds of poi, 602 chickens, and 2,245 coconuts. It was at one of these royal aha ‘aina’s in the 1800’s where King Kamehameha II (aka Liholiho) and his step mother Queen Ka’ahumanu lifted the kapu of men and women eating together, that the term luau came to be. Though much has changed since these ancient days, you can find hints of the traditional aha ‘aina dishes on modern day luau menus. Look past the pasta salad, linen napkins and fruit cocktail to better understand this ancient celebration that has lived on long after the kings and queens of Hawaii.

  • Poi [poh-ee]- a root from the taro plant that is cooked and pounded to create a gooey bland paste. This was the starch staple of the native Hawaiian diet.
  • Kalua – pig rubbed with sea salt and cooked in an imu (an underground oven heated with rocks and kindling). Pig was forbidden to all but the Alii (native Hawaiian chiefs).
  • Squid Luau [loo-ou] – A mixture of squid, coconut milk and taro leaves that is baked or steamed.
  • Poke [po-kee] - fresh raw fish marinated in sea salt, seaweed and kukui nut oil.
  • Lau-lau [lou lou] - tender young taro leaf tips and meat wrapped and cooked in ti leaves inside the imu [ee-moo].
  • Limu [lee-moo] - fresh seaweed. Often ground into a relish and served as a side dish.
  • Opihi [opi-hi]- small sea snails that cling to the reef. The Hawaiian version of the oyster, they are eaten raw with a touch of sea salt.
  • Haupia [how-pee-ah] - a coconut dessert pudding made with coconut milk and arrowroot.

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by Leela Lindner