Feasting at the Luau
No matter where you travel, a great way to experience the destination and culture is to sample the cuisine and delicacies. Hawaii is certainly no exception. As a melting pot of ethnicities, the local food of modern day Hawaii has many variations and persuasions, dating back to ancient Polynesia and a modern influence from Asia. Favorites such as Pho (a traditional Vietnamese soup), Poke (a local Hawaiian favorite with raw fish and an assortment of vegetables), and Kalua Pork (more on this later) are common staples of Hawaiian cuisine. To truly experience Hawaii’s cuisine, the attendance of a luau is the most ideal. Hawaiian Luaus take place for celebrations of all kinds. These parties are held for family and friends to celebrate graduations, weddings, and birthday parties. Most certainly, these local gatherings include live music, Hula Dancing, adult refreshments (most commonly beer that is brewed in Hawaii), and, most importantly, FOOD! Preparations for food, and the recipes, are sacred and often passed through many generations, with secrets closely guarded through each passing.
Long before guests arrive, planning by the hosts is underway, but these aren’t your normal preparations. The Imu Pit must be dug out and prepped, the poi mixed to the right consistency, the song and hula dance coordinated, and much more. Though there are a number of dishes to choose from, many have been served since the first Polynesians arrived to the Islands. You may be asking yourself, what are these dishes? I hope you’re not hungry, because as you read on, you may be jumping on the next flight out. Pork, find someone who doesn’t love a delicious piece of bacon, a moist baked ham, or a savory sausage link. Here on the Islands, we are no exception. Our version of Pork, called Kalua Pork, is a widely popular dish that is most often the focal point of the luau’s cuisine. Now, I mentioned an Imu Pit earlier, and Kalua Pork is nothing without its Imu Pit, so what is it? Imu is an underground oven, dug out well in advance, and Kalua, translated to “cooked in an underground oven,” also describes the flavor of the food. To create the succulent flavor, the floor of the pit is covered with fired koa wood and hot rocks, lined with local vegetation, usually banana leaves, and the entire pig is placed inside. The pig has been previously seasoned with herbs and sea salt, is then stuffed with more hot rocks and covered with ti and banana leaves, in order to preserve the heat and retain its moisture. The final step is to place a moist burlap sack over the pit, cover the entire pit with sand, and let it cook for about 7 hours. Slow cooking the pig ensures that all the juices are retained within the meat, creating a flavor that is simply amazing. Perhaps the most authentic dish is Poi. Made from the root, or corm, of a taro plant, it is cooked until it is a very sticky fluid. To achieve the correct consistency, the corm is mashed, and water gradually added until it reaches its desired quality. The traditional measure for proper consistency is two-finger or three-finger, referring to how many fingers it takes to consume it and the range of liquid to dough-like. Poi’s long history in Hawaii is so important and sacred that ancient Hawaiians believe that the Taro Plant was the original ancestor of Hawaiian People. Other popular luau entrees include: Ahi, Hawaiian for yellow-fin tuna, has been eaten raw for centuries. Normally made with soy, onions, sea salt, sea weed, and furiake, locals call the cubed-cut seasoned fish ahi poke. You can find poke being served as an appetizer at almost every local BBQ in Hawaii, and at most restaurants around the Islands in a number of different recipes. The Polynesian Cultural Center, for example, serves Ahi Poke with lemon and coconut cream, a more pleasant Tahitian preparation. Lomilomi Salmon is quite similar to Poke, though the difference is in the rub, literally. The dish consists of salmon broken into small pieces with Maui Onions, tomatoes, occasionally flakes of chili pepper, and ice. If the term “Lomi-lomi” sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of the Hawaiian massage, in which practioners rub, press, and squeeze. Lomi-lomi is the Hawaiian word for massage; in the case of the dish, the ingredients are mixed and pressed together. There will also be seasoned beef jerky called Pipi Kaula, chicken long rice, sweet potato salad, a variety of local fruits including pineapple and mango, fresh salad, taro rolls, and Haupia, a sweet coconut cream custard for dessert. Of course, the foods here are only a part of the luau experience. The live performances of Hawaiian and Polynesian songs, the traditional Hula Dances, Fire-Knife performances, and the overall atmosphere is an experience that you shouldn’t miss. No matter which luau you choose to attend, you’ll be eating like royalty. Just make sure you go on an empty stomach!