Food & Culture of Hawaii

The Samoan fire dance is the grand finale at many commercial luau.
The Samoan fire dance is the grand finale at many commercial luau. (Image: Kendall Carter/iStock/Getty Images)

As the lauhala mats that served as seating at early Hawaiian luau were woven, so is the Aloha State’s food and culture. Many of the dishes and cultural traditions enjoyed in Hawaii have origins in one or more ethnic groups or a landmark era of Hawaiian history. And several of Hawaii’s traditions and values grew from or are symbolized by its traditional foods. The Hawaiian luau exemplifies this natural weaving together of culture and food.

Luau Roots

Today’s luau is quite different, but in some ways similar to the early Hawaiians’ feast that honored a special occasion and was called “ahaaina,” which refers to gathering and eating. Hula was performed to chants that honored the gods and told stories and histories. Food was shared with each other and the gods and intertwined with the early Hawaiians’ beliefs. Their creation chant told of “kalo,” the taro plant, growing from the stillborn and first son of father sky and earth mother. The word for the shoots of the parent plant, “oha,” means all from the same source, as “ohana” refers to family or group. Then and now, poi pounded from its tubers is a luau staple.

The First Luau

Shortly after King Kamehameha l died in 1819, his son, Liholiho, King Kamehameha ll, ended the strong kapu system, at the urgings of his father’s favorite and strong-headed wife, Queen Kaahumanu. Beginning with the first feast under Liholiho’s reign, women could join men at the feast and women could eat foods previously forbidden to them. Shortly thereafter, the feast was called a “luau.” These social luau were further imbued with fun and entertainment by King Kamehameha III and King David Kalakaua, known as the Merrie Monarch and for whom Hawaii's world-renowned hula competition was named. The name “luau” relates to an ancient and modern dish made with the spinachlike leaves of the taro plant, coconut milk and chicken.

Luau Foods

Most modern luau, whether commercial or backyard, reflect the rainbow of cultures that have comprised Hawaii since the plantation era when Americans running sugar plantations brought Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Filipino workers to the then island nation. The luau is almost always headlined by kalua pig, cooked in an “imu” (pit oven) and then shredded. Other traditional Hawaiian foods that have carried over from the early feasts include poi, sweet potatoes and “haupia” (a firm coconut pudding, although modern haupia uses cornstarch instead of arrowroot). Also on the buffet table you will likely find non-traditional Hawaiian dishes such as teriyaki beef, chicken long rice and cake with coconut frosting. Commercial luau may offer mostly authentic Hawaiian food or fine-dining style Pacific Rim fusion, local style foods, and/or mainland foods with Hawaiian flavors.

Luau Traditions

Hula continues from the early Hawaiians’ aha`aina to be performed at modern luau, commercial and private. “Auana” (modern hula) features Victorian era costumes and Western-influenced music, while "kahiko" (ancient hula) features pre-Western contact costumes, percussion and dramatic chants. Commercial luau may feature one or both of these and often includes other Polynesian dances such as fast hip-moving Tahitian and fire-twirling Samoan. In a private or community luau, aunties may get up spontaneously to dance while uncle plays his ukulele. Traditional Hawaiian values are honored, such as “laulima” (many hands working together) and “ho'okipa” (hospitality). As in ancient times, first birthdays are often celebrated with a luau.

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