The luau has become iconic when thinking of a Hawaiian party, and for good reason.
The ancient Hawaiians gathered with some 10,000 of their closest friends in a feast called “aha’aina”. Over time, the term luau has become the common name for the feast but really refers to the name of the taro leaf used to wrap fish and other dishes before they were placed in the imu – underground oven.
The idea of the luau is a celebration and, as such, you can find luaus common in the islands for baby’s first birthday, graduations, weddings and other milestones.
Most tourists aren’t going to find their way to a local luau, but that isn’t to say they can’t enjoy luau food like locals do.
The Actual Hawaiian Food
Modern day Hawaii is a mix of many cultures. So, don’t be surprised if you see something you might recognize from your own backyard barbecue at a luau.
Potato salad and steamed spinach weren’t part of the ancient culture. These were added over the years as a means of cultural inclusiveness. So, a true luau will have items that aren’t what some might deem “authentic.”
It’s okay, you need to eat and you probably will gag with your first attempt at poi.
To get the true tastes of authentic luau food, go for kalua pig, mahi mahi, squid, sweet potato and taro. These are all dishes wrapped in edible taro leaves and baked in the imu.
Then, add the lomilomi salmon, chicken long rice, poke and shoyu chicken to your plate. All were added to the Hawaiian luau from generations of plantation influences. It’s okay if you don’t know what they are, just try them!
Then, enjoy all of the fresh fruits and veggies you can handle. Save some room, though, for haupia dessert, a sweet coconut pudding.
A luau isn’t a luau if you don’t have a bowl of poi on the table. If you ever ate Elmer’s glue as a kid, just picture the purple version and you’ll be prepared for the texture of poi.
Poi a sticky dish made from pounding the taro root and was a principle carbohydrate for Hawaiians. Most babies in the islands have a staple of poi as their first real food because it’s highly nutritious and easily digested. Give poi a shot, trust me, you can handle it.
How to Eat Like a Local
Utensils were not commonplace in ancient Hawaii. So, if the dish looks like you can eat it with your hands, go for it! Even poi is a finger food.
You said you wanted to enjoy luaus like a local and, much like various ways people hold a tea cup, you can choose how you want to dig in: one finger, two fingers or three. Don’t be shy, dig in. Unwrap the leaves and pull apart bites of pork, fish, sweet potato and taro.
Of course, there will be chopsticks, forks and spoons at your luau. While many locals won’t hesitate to use their fingers for everything on the table, you can opt to use chopsticks for the poke or noodles.
If there is a local at your table and they see you might have missed taking a portion of their favorite dish, know that when they hold their own plate up to you and say, “you like?” they aren’t asking if you’ve formulated an opinion on the food. They’re asking, “would you like to try some?”
If you like it, say it is “ono” meaning good. Food becomes the foundation of friendships.
Single or Taken: The Hawaiian Way
As we said, a luau is a celebration, a party. If you are there and single, it might be good to know which ladies, “wahine,” are off limits.
It wasn’t until 1819, when Kamehameha II ended traditional religious practice, thus being the first time that men and women could attend the feast together, that a luau became a common place to catch a glimpse of your future significant other.
But how can you possibly tell? Easy, ladies wear flowers in their hair and when it’s behind the left ear, hands off, she is taken.
Sit next to the one with a flower behind her right ear, because she’s saying she’s available. Chat her up, laugh and know she’s testing you by your courage in the three-finger poi scoop. Pass the test and maybe you’ll get the lei you were really hoping for.
To Hula or Not
You’ve stuffed yourself like the pig in the imu and can’t imagine standing up, let alone dancing. But, when the Tahitian dancers grab you, go for it.
You’ll partake in something more than bad You Tube videos; you’re celebrating the traditions of storytelling and artistry perfected in centuries of Polynesian craft.
Each hula tells a story, a history of the people, of the gods and of the ways of the fisherman and the warriors.
Don’t think that the hula is merely a touristy concoction. Locals will still dance on the beach, elders with youth, maintaining the traditions that help keep Hawaii unique. Plus, you’ll burn calories and be ready for another plate of your new favorites.
Keep an open mind and a fresh palette when going to a luau. Each one is unique but your willingness to embrace the customs is what makes it authentic. Enjoying a local luau is about more than just enjoying the food.
The luau is an experience of the old Hawaiian ways, a connection to friends and family and an invitation to outsiders to experience aloha spirit. So, as you enjoy the music, dance and finger-licking food, remember that the locals enjoy luaus because they enjoy life. And, they hope you will too.