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The Real Luau

The Gastromondiale Article by David Katz

As a lover of food who has moved to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, I could either lament the lack of great restaurants, or embrace the delicious traditional preparations of the wonderful range of indigenous ingredients.

To be fair, there has long been a movement among the best Hawaiian chefs to replace the bland fare that hotels feed to visitors with elegantly simple dishes of local fish and organic produce. But were Michelin to tour the entire state, they would find one or two places worth a stop, and none worth a detour, let alone a journey.

Foremost among the Hawaiian culinary traditions is the feast known as the luau.

The tourist industry, on which Hawaii largely depends for its economic well being, presents the luau as emblematic of paradise under the palm trees. But the true history of the luau, stemming from the collapse of traditional Hawaiian culture, is complex, ironic, and even tragic.

Before white contact, Hawaiian society was ruled by a rigid system of kapu or taboos. The ali’i, or nobility, imbued with the highest level of mana, (spiritual power,) stood as intermediaries between the gods and the maka’ainana (commoners.) The blessings of the gods, necessary for success in farming, fishing, and warfare, depended on the ritualistic separation of things sacred and things profane.

Food occupied a place between the two. Kalo (taro,) the most important staple, was considered the sacred ancestor of the human race. Other main foods were sacred to particular male gods and could only be eaten by men. Pork symbolized the god Lono, ulua (trevally, a favorite fish) pertained to Ku, niuhi (white shark) was sacred to Kane. These foods, along with fowl, coconut, and bananas, were strictly forbidden to women.

To further underscore the sacredness of the act of eating, men and women were never allowed to eat together.

In 1819, Kamehameha the Great attributed his success in conquering all the Hawaiian islands except Kauai to his strict adherence to the ancient kapu system. His presence carried such spiritual power that commoners could be put to death for failing to prostrate themselves before him or allowing his shadow to touch them.

But his first wife, Keopuolani, represented an even higher royal and divine bloodline. Kamehameha, who held the power of life and death over all of his subjects, could only approach her on his knees.

Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Kaahumanu, was a woman of great physical size and legendary appetites.

Upon the death of the great king, these two of his widows conspired to put an end to the entire ancient religion with all its kapu. They decided to use food as their battleground.

They organized an elaborate feast, with all the foods formerly proscribed to women, and invited both men and women, including Liholiho, Kamehameha’s heir. He was mortally frightened to offend the war gods, but apparently even more afraid to refuse the invitations of his royal mothers. After a two-day drinking binge, Liholiho attended the feast. He ate with the women, the women ate the forbidden foods, and kapu had been publicly and flagrantly violated.

This event was the first luau.

Others can do as they want, said Kaahumanu, “but as for me, and my people, we intend to be free from the kapu. We intend that the husband’s food and the wife’s food shall be cooked in the same oven, and that they shall eat out of the same calabash. We intend to eat pork and bananas and coconuts, and to live as the white people do.”

Within months after this feast, Liholiho, now installed as Kamehameha II, proclaimed the formal end of the old religion. On his orders, heiau (temples) throughout the kingdom were dismantled and their gods thrown into the ocean.

The response of the gods was not immediately apparent. But the very next year, the first Christian missionaries arrived in the islands. Within a few decades, the numbers of the white visitors grew alarmingly, and the Hawaiian population was literally decimated by the diseases the visitors brought with them. In the next generation, the United States imprisoned Liliuokalani, the last queen, and claimed the Hawaiian kingdom as its territory.

The luau was not at first called by that name. The word “luau” means the leaf of the kalo (taro) plant. Stewed with coconut, or wrapped in ti leaves together with pork or chicken and salted butterfish to make laulau, the luau leaf was symbolic of the entire feast. In time, the name of the dish became the name of the feast.

Taro leaves (luau)

But the heart of the menu remained much as Kamehameha would have eaten.

An oven dug in the ground, known as an imu, is mandatory. It will contain a pig, preferably wild, perhaps a chicken or two, the various root vegetables, the ti leaf-wrapped packages called laulau, and fish such as moi (threadfin,) ulua (trevally,) ono (wahoo,) opakapaka (pink snapper,) or mahimahi (dorado.)

Poi, a fermented paste of hand-pounded taro corms and water, is the obligatory starch. Depending on how thick it is mixed, it can be known as one, two, or three-finger poi. Depending on how long it is fermented, it can range from bland to tangy.

Using a stone pounder to make poi from taro (kalo)

Other indigenous staples are ulu (breadfruit), various kinds of yams, and sweet potatoes.

Ulu (breadfruit)

A really traditional event will also include opihi, a delicious limpet that clings to the rocks in the intertidal zone. Other delicacies are o’opu, a fresh water goby, and opae, the big fresh water prawns that live in most streams.


Today, luau are held at resorts for the entertainment of visitors, generally accompanied by costumed dancers and live Hawaiian music and drumming.

They are also held privately among Hawaiians to celebrate events such as first birthdays of a child, marriages, or someone happening to have killed an unusually large wild pig.

Phil Villatora, born and raised on Kauai, is known for conducting luau that honor Hawaiian history and culinary traditions beyond mere entertainment. I have attended a number of them.

Phil Villatora

Last month I asked him to let me help with the preparations so I could observe some of the fine points of the art.

Food cooked in the imu is distinctively moist and smoky. This is because the fire pit both steams and smokes the food. The rectangular pit is dug in the ground and filled with firewood. Coconut husks are the traditional kindling. Kiawi, a Polynesian close relative of mesquite, is the firewood of choice. The pit is filled a foot or so above the brim with wood and then stones are placed on top. It is important for porous lava rock to be used. Some say this is because the denser basalt stones are subject to exploding in the fire, and others say the porous lava stones hold and radiate the heat better.

The imu ready for banana stalks and food


The fire is lit and allowed to burn for about an hour, during which time the stones absorb the heat as they sink into the firepit. When the wood is burned down to about half its original volume, a thick layer of banana stalks is placed on top. The moisture of these stalks provides steam and imparts flavor.

Placing the banana stalks on the imu


The food, in baskets, traditionally woven of pandanus or coconut fibre, but nowadays more often wire mesh, is placed on top of the banana stalks. Then the whole thing is covered with a thick layer of banana leaves. Traditionally the leaves were covered with layers of woven lauhala mats. Now cloth tarps are generally used instead. The imu is sealed with a layer of earth covering the mats or tarps, to prevent any steam from escaping around the edges.

The imu covered with banana leaves

Unlike a clambake, in which the fire is allowed to burn almost completely down and impart all of its heat to the rocks, imu cooking begins when the firewood is still at the red-hot charcoal stage. This allows the wood smoke to flavor the food.

Wild pigs are numerous on Kauai, particularly in the uninhabited interior. Local Hawaiians, much like rural locals everywhere, can be distinguished from the visitors by their pick-up trucks with hunting dogs in the back. The dogs, usually of mixed hound stock, are sent into the bush to find and chase down the pigs. The hunters may follow them for miles into the thick underbrush with their rifles.

Probably it is their diet and exercise that give the wild pigs more intense flavor than their domesticated cousins. The pigs were brought to the islands by the first Polynesian inhabitants about 1500 years ago. In time many escaped and evolved into today’s wild boar.

The pig is eviscerated, hung, and rubbed with locally harvested sea salt. Salt ponds, generations old, evaporate seawater along with traces of mineral-rich clay soil. This colors the Hawaiian salt pink or gray and gives it a complex flavor. It is the alchemy of the wild pig’s island diet, the sea-salt rub, the mesquite-like smoke, and the banana stalk steam that gives the imu-cooked food its rich flavor.

Shredded pork just out of the imu

Kalua pork on banana leaf

(ka = the, lua = pit; kalua = cooked in a pit)

Often ahi poke, a raw fish dish, is served as a first course while awaiting the contents of the imu. Ahi (yellowfin or bigeye tuna) was always a prized fish in the islands. Poke (two syllables) was originally a way of preserving the fish with sea salt. The most traditional recipe calls for raw ahi cut in small pieces, Hawaiian sea salt, limu kohu (a red, feathery kind of seaweed,) inamona (roasted and salted ground kukui nuts) as a condiment, and native Hawaiian red peppers. Nowadays, sesame oil, sesame seeds, shoyu soy sauce, onions, and scallions may also be added.

Ahi poke with limu (seaweed,) onions, and red pepper

Poke gives a few examples of the still-important spiritual connotations of food ingredients for the Hawaiians. Kukui, the name of the nut used for making the inamona condiment, means “light.” This is because the kukui nuts, with their high oil content, were strung on coconut frond midribs to make long-burning torches. In Hawaiian, words often convey several meanings, and kukui also means a spiritual light, and thus imparts that quality to the dish.

Many kinds of limu, or seaweed, were important to the traditional diet. Limu kala is essential in the ho’oponopono ceremony of forgiveness and reconciliation. Limu kohu, with its strong iodine flavor, is a favorite kind for seasoning poke.

The name ahi means fire, and refers to the powerful runs the fish makes when hooked, and thus the vitality it imparts to one who eats it.

Everything is traditionally eaten with the fingers from banana leaves.  Here, ulu, taro, shredded pork, and a sauce of five local peppers and coconut.

Polynesia is home to many varieties of sweet potato and yam. This Hawaiian purple sweet potato is moist and delicious.

From bottom: sweet potato, breadfruit (ulu,) taro

Second in importance only to the imu-roasted pig is the dish known as laulau (leaf leaf, probably signifying the leaf-within-leaf wrapping.) Pieces of pork, together with a chunk of salt butterfish, and sometimes chicken, are seasoned with Hawaiian salt and often coconut milk, and wrapped in several luau (taro) leaves. This is in turn wrapped in two or three ti leaves. The whole package is tied with the fibrous stems of the ti and put into the imu.

Laulau just out of the imu in its ti leaf wrapper

Ti is always planted outside of Hawaiian homes. It is one of the so-called canoe plants, species so necessary that the original Polynesian settlers brought it along to plant in their new island home. It was the original kahili, or royal staff, and warded off malevolent spirits. In addition to being an excellent food wrapper, it made both clothing and roof thatch. No other leaf will do when it comes to wrapping laulau for the imu.

The flavours that seep from the contents into the luau leaf inner wrapper create one of the essential Hawaiian taste experiences. The leaves are so high in oxalic acid that they are inedible raw, but steamed and smoked for several hours, they melt into one of the most delicious cooked greens imaginable.

Luau leaves in the just opened laulau

Laulau fully opened. Pork, butterfish, and luau leaves

To drink with all of this, the best thing by far is the sweet juice of young coconuts. As coconuts mature, their inner liquid goes through various stages. At first it is almost as tasteless as water. As the nut-meat becomes gelatinous, the water becomes increasingly sweet and coconut-flavored. Sometimes it then undergoes a slight fermentation and a subtle tang adds to the sweetness. As the nut-meat hardens, the juice again loses its flavor. Finally, once the nut falls from the tree and sprouts, the entire inner cavity fills with a moist sponge-like substance.

Young coconuts provide the best drink

And for dessert…


Haupia is such a ubiquitous Hawaiian sweet that few people ever wonder where it comes from. It is one of a series of old-time desserts that were baked in the imu along with the pig. Hau means, in this case, cooled or congealed, and pia means the root of the arrowroot plant. Rarely seen anymore are haupia’s cousins, hauko (congealed sugar cane) and hauki (congealed ti root.)

In the traditional preparation, finely ground arrowroot was mixed with handmade coconut cream, wrapped in a ti leaf, and baked in the imu. The result was a naturally sweet, unctuous, and slightly smoky essence of coconut. Nowadays, alas, canned and sweetened coconut cream is mixed with cornstarch, or, even worse, gelatin.

But even the modern version does produce a sweet, creamy coconut confection that is very satisfying after all the foods of the Hawaiian luau.


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