The Hawai’in luau
Hawai’i, incorporated as an American state on August 21st 1959, is the newest of the 50 states of the United States of America and is situated southwest of the continental United States, southeast of Japan and northeast of Australia – its geographical position and political affiliations have influenced the multi-cultural face of contemporary Hawa’ii. Hawai’i has over a million permanent residents along with many visitors and a large number of U.S. military personnel who are based there. The state encompasses almost all of the entire volcanic Hawaiian Island chain, which comprises hundreds of islands spread over 2,400 km. The archipelago (a cluster of tectonically formed islands) that makes up Hawai’i is physiographically and ethnologically part of the Polynesian subregion of Oceania.
A ‘Luau’ is a feast that is celebrated by the Hawaiian people and is considered one of the highlights of a Hawaiian vacation for holiday makers from all over the world. The Luau was so named due to an ingredient present in one of Hawaii’s favourite dishes – the young and tender leaves of the taro plant (luau) which are combined with chicken or seafood and baked in coconut milk. This dish so often came to be served at such celebrations that the celebrations themselves later took on the name of the taro top.
When attending a Luau, guests can expect to be welcomed with a Lei – a necklace made out of woven flowers or shells that is given as a display of affection – and a wide variety of delicious food. Dishes such as salmon, poi, kalua pork, chicken and sweet potatoes are served at the Luau, all of which are traditional Hawai’ian foods. Another highlight of a Luau is the Hula the traditional Hawaiian dance with which most are familiar regardless of whether they have made a visit to Hawaii. The Luau is not intended to be formal, on the contrary, it is a fun and interactive event and attendees may be given the opportunity to participate in arts, crafts and games, or may be given the opportunity to witness Polynesian performances based on cultural practices.
The ‘Imu’, is a fundamental feature of a Luau. It is the pit in which a whole pig is cooked under the ground. The imu is dug and lined with logs and topped with rocks. A fire is lit in the pit, and the rocks are heated. The heat turns the wood to coal. At this point, banana stalks are placed on top of the rocks, followed by banana leaves, on which the pig is placed. Wet burlap sacks cover the pit and six to ten hours later, depending on the pig’s size, the meat is cooked and ready for the Luau feast.
Guests at the Luau are given their ‘Lei’ as they arrive on the scene. Also when dressing for the Luau, women can elect to place a flower behind their right or left ear. This action is not purely ornamental; placing a flower over the left ear indicates that one is ‘taken’ or in a relationship, and placing a flower over the right ear indicates that one is single and available. Luau feasts are eaten on the floor, not from around a dining table nor with guests seated on chairs. The food is placed onto leaves that cover a type of woven mat called the ‘Lauhala’ mat and traditionally people would eat using only their hands.
Luaus held these days are generally not as large-scale as those that were hosted by Hawaiian royalty in the 1800s, but they are a huge amount of fun and feature the same delicious traditional foods. Throughout history, Hawai’ian people have gathered together to celebrate special occasions with a feast; however, how these gatherings were formulated has changed with time. Some of the reasons to celebrate may have included honoring a victory in war, honoring a warrior, celebrating the harvest or the launch of a new canoe. The Hawai’ians believed that it was important to honor their gods and to seek their fellowship, help or pardon. They also believed that prosperity should be shared with family and friends. This type of celebration was traditionally known as ‘aha‘aina, meaning gathering, and it wasn’t until later in 1856 that these celebrations were referred to as Luaus.
Many centuries ago in ancient Hawaii, men and woman ate separately. Commoners and women were also prohibited to eat certain delicacies. This all changed in 1819, when King Kamehameha II dissolved the traditional religious practices and abolished many other religious laws. A feast where the King ate with women was the symbolic act which ended the Hawai’ian religious taboos, and the Luau was born. An enormous amount of preparation goes into a Luau party as often these parties can last up to 3 days and need to be extremely well organized.
Modern day Hawaii displays a melting pot of cultures so Luaus today often exhibit influences from other cultures. For example, rice has become a popular side dish to include at the Luau party – an acknowledgement of Asian influences and many Hawaiians now regularly consume corned beef – inherited from North American culture – and have perfected many different ways to create interesting meals with it. Outside influences are not a recent development – a dangerous, yet exciting fire dance is often performed at professional Luaus but history states this hails from Samoan origin. Today, the Luau is a major visitor attraction and gatherings are held daily throughout the islands of Hawaii. A luau is said to be the true experience of ‘aloha’ (love).