Luau: A Taste of Hawaii

The best place to sample Hawaiian food is at a backyard luau. Aunts and uncles are cooking, the pig is from a cousin’s farm, the fish is from a brother’s boat, and someone plinks a wistful tune on a ukulele.

The luau is such a special event that even locals have to angle for invitations. So unless you’re tight with a local family, your choice is most likely between a commercial luau and a Hawaiian restaurant. Some commercial luau are not particularly authentic; they offer little of the traditional diet and are more about umbrella drinks, spectacle, and fun. For greater culinary authenticity, folksy experiences, and rock-bottom prices, try a Hawaiian restaurant. Most are located in anonymous storefronts in residential neighborhoods.

Much of what is known today as Hawaiian food would be foreign to a 16th-century Hawaiian. The precontact diet was simple and healthy—mainly raw and steamed seafood and vegetables. Early Hawaiians used earth ovens and heated stones to cook seafood, taro, sweet potatoes, and breadfruit. They seasoned their food with sea salt and ground kukui nuts. Seaweed, fern shoots, sweet potato vines, coconut, banana, sugarcane, and select greens and roots rounded out the diet.

Immigrants added their favorites to the ti leaf–lined table, so now foods as disparate as salt salmon and chicken long rice have become Hawaiian—even though there is no salmon in Hawaii and long rice (cellophane noodles) is Chinese.

AT THE LUAU: KALUA PORK

The heart of any luau is the imu, the earth oven in which a whole pig is roasted. The preparation of an imu is an arduous affair for most families, who tackle it only once a year or so for a baby’s first birthday or at Thanksgiving, when many Islanders prefer to imu their turkeys. Commercial luau operations have it down to a science, however.

The Art of the Stone. The key to a proper imu is the pohaku, the stones. Imu cook by means of long, slow, moist heat released by special stones that can withstand a hot fire without exploding. Many Hawaiian families keep their imu stones in a pile in the backyard and pass them on through generations.

Pit Cooking. The imu makers first dig a pit about the size of a refrigerator, then lay down kiawe (mesquite) wood and stones, and build a white-hot fire that is allowed to burn itself out. The ashes are raked away, and the hot stones covered with banana and ti leaves. Well-wrapped in ti or banana leaves and a net of chicken wire, the pig is lowered onto the leaf-covered stones. Laulau (leaf-wrapped bundles of meats, fish, and taro leaves) may also be placed inside. Leaves—ti, banana, even ginger—cover the pig followed by wet burlap sacks (to create steam). The whole is topped with a canvas tarp and left to steam for the better part of a day.

Opening the Imu. This is the moment everyone waits for: when the imu is unwrapped like a giant present and the imu keepers gingerly wrestle out the steaming pig. When it’s unwrapped, the meat falls moist and smoky-flavored from the bone.

Which Luau? Most resort hotels have luau on their grounds that include hula, music, and, of course, lots of food and drink. Each island also has at least one "authentic" luau.

MEA AI ONO: GOOD THINGS TO EAT

Laulau. Steamed meats, fish, and taro leaf in ti-leaf bundles: fork-tender, a medley of flavors; the taro resembles spinach.

Lomi Lomi Salmon.Salt salmon in a piquant salad or relish with onions and tomatoes.

Poi. A paste made of pounded taro root, poi may be an acquired taste, but it’s a must-try during your visit.

Consider: The Hawaiian Adam is descended from kalo (taro). Young taro plants are called keiki, or children. Poi is the first food after mother’s milk for many Islanders. Ai, the word for food, is synonymous with poi in many contexts.

Not only that, we love it. “There is no meat that doesn’t taste good with poi,” the old Hawaiians said. But you have to know how to eat it: with something rich or powerfully flavored.

Published 01/10/2017

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