Generally speaking, a lu’au is a Hawaiian party or feast, usually accompanied by entertainment. Among people from Hawaii, the concepts of a modern “luau party”, feast and celebration are often blended, resulting in wedding luaus, graduation luaus, and birthday luaus, especially a baby’s first birthday.
In ancient Hawaii, by virtue of religious laws it was kapu (forbidden) for the maka’ainana (common people) to eat with royalty members. Also, men and women ate their meals separately. The maka’ainana were not allowed to eat certain foods reserved for, and served during special occasions or gatherings.
These feast were called a pa‘ina or ‘aha‘aina (pa’ina – meal, small dinner party. aha’aina – large dinner party, banquet, or feast.
In 1819 Liholiho, King Kamehameha II abolished the religious laws; the kapu associated with segregated eating. In a symbolic act, he sits to eat with all the women. It was the start of the less formal celebratory gatherings that we know today.
It wasn’t until 1856 that the Pacific Commercial Advertiser; a weekly newspaper in Honolulu started using the word/term “luau” in reference to these large dinner parties. Lu’au is the name of the main traditional food dish made of taro (kalo) leaves baked with coconut milk along with either chicken, octopus or squid.
Served along with the traditional lu’au dish (as above) were various fruits and vegetables such as kalo (taro), ulu (breadfruit) and coconut, fresh and salted fish, as well as pork and chicken.
Today’s lu’au menu can feature kalua pork, laulau, chicken long rice (now accepted as traditional), poi, poke, lomi salmon, opihi, a’ama crab, and for dessert haupia and kulolo.
In Hawaii, depending on the hosts nationality you may also find added non-Hawaiian food dishes as Japanese, Korean, Puerto Rican, Filipino Chinese, and Samoan. Nowadays, Hawaii’s adoption of white, short-grain sticky rice is a must to go with any meal!
Entertainment consisted of traditional hula and drumming. It expanded with the introduction of the steel guitar, slack key guitar and ukulele stringed instruments. The “luau” gained popularity between the 1930s – 1950s with the growth of tourism to Hawaii. Hula girls and ukuleles became the iconic image of Hawaii during this era.
Modern day entertainment consists of live Hawaiian and contemporary music and hula dancing. In Hawaii it is accepted to also include non-Hawaiian, Polyneisan entertainment as Samoan and Tahitian dancing. Various entertainment from Hawaii Asian ethnicity may also be included.
Today “Hawaiian Luau Theme” parties take place worldwide. With it’s popularity, unfortunately comes great misconceptions. The over abundance of plastic leis, fake tiki’s, umbrella topped maitai’s and gaudy Hawaiian shirts will certainly raise eyebrows of Hawaii Locals.So before you plan your summertime pool party, do your research from reliable sources. Know the difference between HULA and Taihitian dancing. And… for Akua’s sake, please no belly dancing! ‘A’ole!