History of the Hawaiian Luau
Diamond Head Luau Hula Dancer

Attending an authentic Hawaiian Luau is a great way to learn a bit about Hawaiian culture, and Hawaiian history and enjoy dancing, entertainment, music, and tasty Hawaiian dishes.

Hawaiians will host Luau’s to celebrate a wide range of occasions including birthdays and graduations to weddings. A Luau is an extension of the close-knit and friendly islander lifestyle that forms the basis of the rich Hawaiian culture.

As tourists come to Hawaii seeking to immerse themselves in the culture, the Luau has expanded to an all-purpose celebration.

In this latest Oahu Travel Guide article, Oahu Things to do: History of the Hawaiian Luau, we’ll provide you with all the rich history and origin of this amazing activity.

History of the Luau:
Before the 19th century, special occasions were celebrated with an aha’aina, which means “gathering meal.” Hawaiians believed that these ceremonial gatherings were a way to honor their gods through unique cultural dishes and practices, while also celebrating the unity of the people brought together by the event.

During this time in Hawaiian history, men and women were not allowed to eat together. Men and women were separated during mealtimes at aha’aina and even ate different foods. Women of all classes and common folk were also forbidden to eat certain Hawaiian delicacies such as traditional reef fish, moi pork, and bananas.

Only the “Alii” or “chiefs” of ancient Hawaii and the kings were allowed to indulge in these foods. This all changed in 1819 when King Kamehameha II ended the religious traditions of the aha’aina that segregated people during meal times by hosting a feast for everyone to enjoy the Pacific’s greatest flavors. Men, women, children, and royalty all dined and celebrated as one – giving way to a new feast: the present-day Luau

During these first Luau events, people traditionally sat on the floor and ate off of lauhalas, large woven mats made from leaves, using only their hands to eat. Beautiful centerpieces of ferns, leaves, and flowers lined the center of the gathering mats, with platters of meat, like Lomi Salmon and Kalua Pig (pork cooked in an underground oven called an Imu), and bowls of poi, a classic Polynesian staple made from taro plant corn, laid on the mats; dried fish, sweet potatoes, and bananas were placed directly on the lauhala.

The royal Luau events of ancient Hawaii were large and lavish, ranging from hundreds to thousands of people at a single feast.  King Kamehameha’s Luau events soon became legendary. The saying “enough to feed a king” is definitely fitting to his 1847 Luau, which was the largest luau in Hawaiian history. It required 271 Pigs, 482 large gourds of poi, 3125 saltwater fish, 1,820 freshwater fish, 2,245 coconuts, and 4,000 taro plants.

As the Luau gained popularity and visitors from all over the world came to join in on the cultural celebration, it turned from a feast into an elaborate party with traditional dancing and entertainment. In the 1960’s the love of Hawaiian culture and rapid growth of tourism to the islands led to the increased popularity of the Luau, transforming them from a friends and family event to a popular tourist attraction.

Most elements of the modern-day Luau are still authentic to Hawaiian cultures, such as the mele/chants, and some of the food being cooked in an Imu. There have also been other Polynesian cultures incorporated into the Luau over the years like Samoan fire knife dancing, Maori dances including the haka, and dances and songs from Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, and Marquesas.

However, western culture has also left its mark on the modern-day Luau, which leaves many conscious travelers grappling over whether or not attendance at a Hawaiian Luau event is truly necessary to experience authentic Hawaii.

The Luau has a deep and rich history in Hawaii and Polynesian culture; it’s more than just a gustatory event, it’s a feast for the eyes and ears. The Luau is a unique experience that brings Hawaiian culture to life, but it is not sufficient on its own to fully appreciate the rich culture of Hawaii and other Pacific Islands.

Traditional Food typically served at an authentic Luau:
Authentic Native Hawaiian cuisine is delicious, flavorful, and distinctive. Serving the best classic cuisine is a sure way to make your next Hawaiian Luau party the talk of the town.
Below are some common traditional foods to serve if you want an authentically Hawaiian Luau.

Kalua Pig – The Kalua Pig is an essential part of any Luau menu. The term “kalua” refers to the traditional Hawaiian method of cooking meat. This method involves roasting pork in an underground oven called an Imu. The Imu is a long-established component of traditional Hawaiian Luaus. Not only does it give the meat a distinguished flavor, but it creates a fun way for people to gather together and participate in historic cooking methods. After cooking a Pig in an Imu, the pork comes out tender, salty, and savory, a kind of pulled pork.

Lau Lau – The spread of edibles at a Luau can be just as beautiful as it is delicious. Lau Lau is a traditional Hawaiian dish involving meat wrapped in Kalo leaves. Customarily, Hawaiians have used these large leaves to wrap various types of meat, such as fish or pork, then cook them in an Imu. When it finishes cooking, you cut the leaves and eat the meat inside.

Poi – Along with roast Pig, Poi is another dish traditionally favored by Native Hawaiians, though “dish” may not be the best word to describe this delicacy. Poi is a sticky, creamy paste made from mashing up taro root (Colocasia Esculenta), which locals call Kalo root: lavender or purple starchy vegetable. It has a sweet yet sour flavor, due to natural fermentation. that many foreigners consider an acquired taste. It pairs well with Kalua Pig.

Haupia – Haupia is a Hawaiian dessert made from coconut milk and sugar. Traditionally, Hawaiians prepare it with Polynesian arrowroot or pia. However, many use cornstarch as a modern substitute. Haupia has the taste of coconut with a Jello texture, making it one of the best sweet treats to serve. Cut it into squares to make them easier to serve and eat.

Kulolo – Like many other traditional Hawaiian dishes, Native Hawaiians make Kulolo by gathering fresh ingredients and wrapping them in ti leaves before cooking them in the Imu. While modern Kulolo may not always have raw sugar and fresh Kalo, it is still an excellent way to sweeten your Luau menu.

Squid Luau – Squid Luau is a traditional seafood dish that often resembles creamed spinach. The Luau menu item starts with Luau leaves, which are the leaves of the taro (Kalo) plant, simmered with Tako (octopus) or squid, sea salt, and coconut milk. Although these ingredients seem like an unusual combination, they create an authentic Hawaiian dish that will have Luau guests coming back for seconds.

Lomi Lomi Salmon – According to legend, two New England ships came to Hawaii in the whaling era and introduced Salmon. Since that time, Salmon has been a special dish for many parties and Hawaiian households. Lomi Lomi Salmon consists of cold, filleted salted Salmon chopped up and marinated with chopped onion, scallions, and tomatoes.

Poke – Poke is one of the most widely known traditional dishes outside of the Hawaiian Islands. The word “poke” (sounds like poke-ay, not poke-ee) means “to cut crosswise into pieces.” This dicing method was how traditional Hawaiians prepared raw fish. While traditional poke has only a few ingredients, modern food influences from China and Japan include kimchee, wasabi, and other sushi-related ingredients in today’s poke bowls.

Pipikaula – Cattle was not introduced to Hawaii until 1793 but now beef is now a staple of many Hawaiian foods, including Pipikaula. This distinctive meat snack was the invention of Hawaiian cowboys, or ‘Panilolo’ in the late 19th century. Translated to “beef rope,” Pipikaula consists of short rib (with bone) or flank steak that is salted, seasoned with shoyu (soy sauce), and partially dried, then sliced into finger food. Hawaiians traditionally serve it on the bone to maintain its juiciness.

In this latest Oahu Travel Guide article: Oahu Things to do: History of the Hawaiian Luau we’ve just a brief introduction to the history of the Hawaiian Luau and we’re certain that when you come to Hawaii, a visit to one of the many wonderful modern day Luau’s would provide for a most enjoyable event that you will not soon forget.