THE BLOG
05/07/2014 06:42 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2014

Exploring the History of Hawaiian Luau

Next to aloha, luau is perhaps the most recognized Hawaiian word in the word. That goes double for here in Hawaii, where going to a luau -- a traditional Hawaiian party with lots of food and island entertainment -- is always a special occasion for both visitors and local residents.

For example, it's common to hear people in Hawaii talk about "baby luau," "squid luau" and even "luau feet": In order, the first refers to the common practice of extended Hawaii families and friends to celebrate a baby's first birthday with a big luau. The second is a favorite luau dish made from a boiled mix of the namesake luau or young taro leaves, coconut cream and small pieces of squid. Finally, "luau feet" refers to local people who wear rubber slippers or go without shoes so frequently that their feet may actually flatten and widen.

In modern Hawaii, a luau (pronounced loo-ow) can take many forms. Kamaaina (local residents) also go to luaus for the previously mentioned birthday parties, building dedication and special events, high school and college graduation, weddings; and most of our visitors just want to experience this Hawaiian cultural event, sample local foods and enjoy the accompanying hula and music.

But let's take a better look at where these wonderful traditions started.

Luau's legacy
Before extensive contact with western cultures, Native Hawaiians held an ahaaina to celebrate special occasions such a victory at war, launching a new canoe or a baby surviving its first year (hence the modern baby luau tradition). Aha in Hawaiian refers to a gathering and also a strong rope braided together from many coconut fibers, and an aina was a special meal. The old Hawaiians believed these ceremonial gatherings honored their gods through the deep symbolism attached to the various dishes and procedures, and celebrated the unity of the people brought together by the event.

Unlike today's luau feasts, ahaaina and everyday paina or meals were traditionally eaten without utensils. People sat on the ground atop lauhala mats woven from leaves the leaves of the pandanus or hala tree, and in keeping with Hawaiian customs, men always ate separately from women and children.

Some luau dishes represented strength while other foods signified virtues or goals diners hoped to achieve. However, not all guests enjoyed every dish. Some foods were kapu (forbidden) to commoners and women: Moi (a reef fish), as well as pork and bananas, were forbidden to everyone except alii (chiefs). But then, as today, all luau guests ate fish, sweet potatoes and, of course, poi -- a Hawaiian food staple made by pounding boiled taro roots and mixing it with a little water into a pasty texture.

King Kamehameha II ended the kapu or taboo of separate gender dining in 1819 by openly eating with women. Soon after this, the term luau began to become popular (although ahaaina by invitation only are still held on very special occasions).

While modern luaus are fun and colorful, they wane in comparison to the pomp and pageantry of the royal bashes thrown in old Hawaii. For instance, the overflowing menu of King Kamehameha's luau in 1847 featured 2,245 coconuts, 4,000 taro plants, 482 bowls of poi, 3,125 salted fish, 1,820 fresh fish and 271 hogs.

And King Kamehameha wasn't the only royal figure who loved to throw a party. King Kalakaua was well known for his love of luau. Nicknamed the "Merry Monarch," for his 50th birthday His Majesty threw a bash for more than 1,500 guests -- so many that attendees needed to be fed in three shifts!

What's on a luau menu
When visiting a new place, one of the best ways to get a taste for the culture is to enjoy local fare. In Hawaii, unlike conventional dining, a luau offers more than just a delicious buffet. A luau is more than a gustatory event: It's a feast for the eyes and ears -- with song and hula, and watching how the food is prepared and pulled fresh from the imu or underground oven.

As in ancient Hawaii, a luau is designed to bring participants together, and many of the items on the menu are still as rich with symbolism as they are delicious to the palate.

Before digging into your dinner, brush up on some of the entrees typically found on a luau menu:
• Poi: Made from mashed taro, poi is a viscous starch dish loaded with nutrients.
• Kalua pig: Traditionally one of the main attractions at a luau, kalua pig consists of pork shoulder or pork butt rubbed with sea salt and roasted in an imu. Think of an imu as a large steam oven.
• Poke: Meaning "to slice or cut" in Hawaiian, poke is raw, cubed fish or seafood (typically ahi) that has been marinated with sea salt, soy sauce, seaweed and other ingredients.
• Lomilomi salmon: A popular luau side dish, lomi salmon is prepared by lomi-ing (massaging) raw salted salmon into small bites, mixed with tomatoes and onion.
• Laulau: A traditional Hawaiian dish also prepared in an imu, laulau consists of pork, chicken or fish wrapped in taro leaf, first wrapped in luau leaves, then ti leaves.
• Pineapple: Fresh from local fields, as well as other island fruits.
• Haupia: A sweet coconut custard dessert.

For more information on the history of luaus visit www.polynesia.com.