While the Hawaiian luau draws tourists from all parts of the globe, it is more than just a tourist trap and an excuse for gluttony. These celebrations, held under the stars, feature Polynesian music, hula performances, Polynesian fire knife dancing, and a chance to experience one of the oldest Hawaiian cultural traditions.
The Earliest Feasts
Hawaiians once referred to the luau as the ‘aha ‘aina. These feasts honored special occasions, such as launching a new canoe, or reaching a significant milestone. The celebrations were held on large woven mats, which were set on the ground and ornamented with flowers and local greenery.
Food was cooked in a traditional underground steam oven, called the imu. River rocks were heated over firewood. Once the rocks were sufficiently hot, the cooks removed the remaining firewood. They crushed banana stumps and water over the hot rocks, in order to create steam. Then, they added the food and covered it to seal in the steam. In many ways, the ancient Hawaiians were ahead of their time, since steaming food is one of the healthiest cooking methods and does not require excessive oil.
Once the guests arrived, they sat on both sides of the spread and shared foods served in large wooden bowls and platters. Utensils were unheard of. Guests ate with their fingers, and nobody worried about germs. All of the foods were rich in symbolism. Some foods signified strength, while others took on the names of virtues and goals for which the participants aspired.
Liberating the Luau
The religious traditions of ancient Hawaii forbade women from eating with men. Furthermore, commoners and women of any rank were not permitted to drink port, or eat bananas, coconuts and several types of fish. These delicacies were reserved for royalty.
In 1819, King Kamehameha II abolished these traditions when he allowed women and common subjects to join the feast. The good king had an affinity for women. When he was six months old, his maternal grandmother took him into custody, complaining that he wasn’t being fed a proper diet by his father’s servants. He thus grew up with a love of good food and good women, as evidenced by his five wives.
The word luau eventually replaced ‘aha ‘aina. Luau, in the Hawaiian language, is the name of the taro leaf. Cooked like spinach, it is often served with chicken or beef.
The Most Famous Luaus
One of the most extravagant luaus held in Hawaii took place in 1847. Over 1,500 guests were invited to celebrate of the 50th birthday of King Kamehameha III. They were fed in shifts of 500. The cooks prepared 4,000 taro plants, 271 hogs, 482 large calabashes of poi, 3,125 salted fish, 1,820 fresh fish and 2,245 coconuts.