Inside an Authentic Hawaiian Luau


Photo by Jeannette Lee

To view photos of the foods that make up a Hawaiian luau, click here for a slide show.

Hawaii has had a big year. August marks the 50th year of statehood for the 50th state. A homegrown boy became president. As if that weren't enough, the local cuisine got a national tip-of-the-hat when Obama flew celebrated Honolulu chef Alan Wong to Washington to whip up a luau buffet on the White House lawn for members of Congress.

But as Wong told one reporter, "It was the congressional picnic and not really a traditional luau." Luau staples such as lomi lomi salmon and kalua pig appeared on the final menu, but poi, a starch sometimes likened to glue by tourists, and other dishes were replaced by chicken hoagies and grilled lamb chops--a prudent call given mainland tastes.

Real Hawaiian luau food is simpler and a lot less expensive than Wong's (whose amazing restaurant my parents treated me to long ago, on high school graduation day). It's also quite heavy on proteins, namely pork, and tends to be salty-savory.

The luau traditionally marks a happy event--a birth, graduation, reunion, or wedding--but for me the food signifies nostalgia and departure.

The modern luau (the word means "feast" in Hawaiian) is a mix of foods from ancient Hawaii, as well as those brought in by successive waves of immigrants from Asia and Europe. Hawaiian beef jerky, or pipikaula, is one example; cattle weren't introduced to the islands until 1793.

The luau traditionally marks a happy event--a birth, graduation, reunion, or wedding--but for me the food signifies nostalgia and departure. My parents always served a big Hawaiian meal the night before I'd fly back to college in New England. They have continued to do so during my twice-yearly trips home.

On my last visit, Mom started the evening with a big bowl of edamame seasoned with olive oil, kosher salt, and finely chopped garlic. (It's best to keep the appetizers light. Hawaiian food is very filling.)

Here's what else we had:

VIEW SLIDE SHOW>> lee_august26_mom_post.jpg

Photo by Jeannette Lee

Poke (rhymes with "okay"): Usually ahi tuna, cubed and raw, coated with various combinations of soy sauce, seaweed, onions, sugar, chili pepper, alaea (Hawaiian sea salt), sesame oil/seeds, garlic, or fresh ginger. Poke-making contests have inspired unorthodox additions like mayonnaise and avocado. The more unusual types of poke include white crab, mussels and octopus.

Pipikaula: Teriyaki-flavored nuggets of beef jerky, sometimes still on the bone. Ideally pipikaula is still juicy, even when dried, and finished with perfectly crisped edges.

Laulau: A piece of salty pork, chicken, or fish wrapped with an inner layer of edible taro leaves and an outer layer of inedible ti leaves to retain the juices. Traditionally baked underground in a large pit or imu, but can be made in an oven. Considered the main dish.

Presented by

Jeannette Lee

Jeannette Lee is an Atlantic Media Fellow. Previously, she worked as an Associated Press reporter in Alaska and Hawaii.

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