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:
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.
Kalua Pig: Shredded, smoky, salted pork butt, a little like pulled pork. Like laulau, it's an imu dish, but can be replicated in the oven and flavored with liquid smoke. This batch came from the imu down the road at Punahou, Obama's old high school.
Chicken Long Rice: Slivered chicken in chicken broth with vermicelli rice noodles. Like poke, this dish leaves ample room for inspiration. Mom likes to add bamboo shoots, green onions, shiitake mushrooms, and lots of ginger.
Squid luau: A sweet-savory stew of taro leaves, coconut milk, and squid. Also cooked with chicken, octopus, or other fish. The dark-green taro leaves (also called luau leaves) are the same ones used in laulau and are probably the only vegetables (aside from token bits of onion and tomato) you'll get for the entire meal. Mom usually makes a green salad to compensate.
Lomi Lomi Salmon: A chilled, salty side dish of diced salmon, tomatoes, green onions, and regular onions. The best version I've had was at a restaurant called Hula Hands in Anchorage (see below), which would irk many a customer if it didn't use wild Alaskan salmon.
Tripe Stew: Savory, with tripe, potatoes, carrots, stewed tomatoes, and chicken broth. Another non-traditional dish that while clearly not Hawaiian, is now an indispensable part of local cuisine.
Poi: The bland, staple starch of the indigenous Hawaiians is made by mashing taro root to a gray paste. It's a taste best acquired by swirling with a few forkfuls of kalua pig or lomi salmon. White rice and purple Okinawan sweet potato are the other starches generally served at a luau.