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:


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.

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.


Kulolo: A pudding loaf made of grated taro, sugar, and coconut milk.

Haupia: A coconut pudding with the consistency of jello. Cool and not too sweet.

We also had mochi ice cream and chocolate cream puffs from the store.

Some of these dishes take at least a few hours to prepare, so our luau dinners are usually half store-bought and half home-cooked. We always buy from Young's Fishmarket, which is owned by my mother's cousins. It's a little out of the way for tourists, so I usually direct any friends visiting Honolulu to Ono's, or Helena's. Stop by Liliha Bakery for the cream puffs, a local favorite.

It's strange to say now, but I actually took Hawaiian food for granted while living for three years in Anchorage, Alaska. The fairly large number of Pacific Islanders, along with military personnel transferred north from Hawaii, kept the kitchen busy at a very good Hawaiian restaurant called Hula Hands. With snow, it was a 15-minute drive from my house. Now I'm back on the East Coast, twice as far from the islands, with not a laulau for miles around. The craving has returned.