Hawaiian Luaus

The traditional island feast can be a colorful culinary tour of Polynesia.

Hawaiian women serving food at a table, image

Hawaiian feasts are more than just pig and poi.

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It was at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel that we came to love—and I mean love—poi.

"Make sure to get a big bowlful," our host taunted as we set off for the buffet, knowing most of us would pass. "You eat a little bit of fish," he said, "then a little bit of poi, then a little bit of pig, then a little bit of poi . . ."

As we obediently ate our big bowlfuls, we saw that this famously bland, grayish purple goop is to the Hawaiian what le pain is to the French: the perfect pause between strong flavors and odd textures. The slightly tangy paste allowed us to make our way back and forth from macadamia-crusted mahimahi to smoky pork, from sweet potatoes to salmon ceviche.

We hadn't come to the Royal to discover poi, per se, but we had come on a mission. I grew up in the islands and wanted to show my sweetie how Hawaiians chow down and party. Luaus are the way locals celebrate birthdays, launch campaigns, and raise money. At a Hawaiian hoedown, food and drink abound, uncles pluck guitars, aunties sing along, and anyone might dance the hula.

Of course, it's pretty hard for tourists to crash private luaus and church fund-raisers. Instead, we sampled the islands' commercial luaus, which range from the self-consciously authentic to the unapologetically crass. There's a luau for every palate and pocketbook.

We started with a classy example, which is how we came to be at the Royal Hawaiian—the "Pink Palace" that has graced the beach at Waikiki since 1927. After strolling through the hotel's lush gardens and Spanish arches, we were greeted with orchid leis, shown to one of 30 round tables, and given the first of many mai tais.

The evening's emcee, Esmond Chung, welcomed us to "a party, a feast, a chance to sit back and hang loose."

A quartet played Hawaiian standards, and dancers came out for a kolohe hula. "That means rascally," Chung explained, just before blessing the food in the mellifluous Hawaiian tongue.

After dinner, the real show began—a dramatic dance tour of Polynesia. First the drums, grass skirts, coconut-shell bras, and wild hips of Tahiti. Then the graceful hula of Hawaii. After a vigorous slap dance, a nearly naked Samoan pranced, pirouetted, and practically set himself on fire with a pair of flaming clubs.

Such exuberance is typical among the Polynesians, who as early as the 5th century crossed the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii in outrigger canoes, bringing their culinary traditions with them. They packed pandanus cakes, breadfruit paste, dried fish, and slips of taro as well as banana and coconut trees. They also brought dogs, pigs, and chickens.

The heart of the Hawaiian kitchen was the imu, an earthen pit lined with kindling and timbers, heaped with fist-size stones, and set afire. Hot stones would be stuffed into a dressed pig that was then lowered into the imu, where the remaining hot stones were covered with ti and banana leaves. A large cloth was heaped over the food, and dirt was shoveled on to seal it. The steaming greens cooked both pig and trimmings—breadfruit, plantains, yams, sweet potatoes, and laulau (ti-leaf bundles containing fish or chicken and tender taro leaf tips). Six hours later, the pig would emerge, its meat shredded and mouth-meltingly tender.

The perfect complement to the smoky-flavored pig was poi—cooked taro pounded into a smooth paste. Hawaiians considered this the staff of life, eating it with well-practiced fingers that dipped and danced into the mouth. (Poi remains a staple today.) Other common dishes included chicken and squid lu'au (a mixture of meat, coconut cream, and the spinachy taro leaves), opihi (limpet), limu (seaweed), and the nut relish inamona. For dessert, Hawaiians ate puddings of coconut and taro.

Most of these dishes are too esoteric for the typical tourist feast. Pig and poi will be there. If you're lucky you'll get a laulau. But the buffets also include a bizarre spread of Western foods, often featuring pasta salad, fried chicken, rolls, and red meat.

But it's not the food that makes these luaus popular. At Paradise Cove—12 acres on the ragged Waianae coastline—big blue drinks loosen the crowd for goofy activities such as dressing up in Gilligan's Island-like costumes and watching someone dump plumerias from a coconut tree.

The Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu's North Shore offers a more sober affair—run by the Mormon Church. The center's man-made lagoon meanders through 42 acres and "villages" of seven separate archipelagoes. You can play Tongan shuffleboard, weave Hawaiian hats, and dance the Tahitian tamure. During the luau, dances are rendered in reverential detail.

On the Big Island, the luau at Kona Village Resort features the most authentic spread around, including laulau, lomi salmon, and even opihi.

On Maui, the Old Lahaina Luau is set on the beach and combines traditional and local fare. Also in the historic whaling town, the Feast at Lele offers a twist on the usual: Each of four courses is paired with the dances of Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, or Hawaii.

Commercial luaus cater to non-Hawaiian tastes, and we found ourselves wanting to move beyond pig, poi, and big hotels. So we ventured into Honolulu's working-class district to find Helena's Hawaiian Foods, fabled among families and foodies. Above the fake parquet and the Formica tables is a plaque from the James Beard Foundation: In 2000, the then-83-year-old Helen Chock received the America's Regional Classics Award for cooks whose food reflects the history and character of their communities.

At Helena's, this includes not just the food of ancient feasts, but also that of modern, melting-pot Hawaii: Lomi salmon, the salted fish of sailors, is "massaged" with lemon juice, onions, and tomatoes. Hawaiians created chicken long rice and poke (seafood marinated in peanuts, seaweed, and chiles) when the Chinese and Japanese brought in noodles and nut oils.

Honolulu holes-in-the-wall like Ono Hawaiian Foods, Helena's, and Iva's Place keep tradition for one-fifth the price of the Royal Luau. Forget flower leis, mai tais, and fancy dancing. Instead, try a tender, sweet, luscious squid lu'au. Ours was delicious—or, as Hawaiians say, ono.

"Was it ono or 'Oh no!'?" teases Kaliko Kalima at Germaine's Luau. She's referring, of course, to poi. We have ended up here with our niece, Chloe. The setting is an oceanfront acre surrounded by bleak industrial parks. There's no open bar, the leis are made of cheap shells, and the food is more picnic than gourmet. But the pig is pulled out of a real imu, the tables are set in the sand, and the backyard style infects you with a low-key, family spirit.

Together with her cohost Wendall Silva, Kalima holds chant competitions among groups of tables. They invite the longest-married couple in the crowd onto the stage and ask them to share the secret of their success—"Saying yes."

The good-natured informality and earthy humor help us overlook the tourist kitsch and the showbiz glitz. Chloe and I are invited to dance to "Papalina Lahilahi," a comedic ditty praising a beloved's "sweet cheeks."

In the end, it isn't the cere-mony, the setting, or even the food that makes the luau. It's the fun. After all, how often does an 11-year-old get to dance with her auntie before a cheering crowd of hundreds?

Pass the poi

Feast at Lele, Maui—$95, adults; (808) 667-5353.

Germaine's Luau, Oahu—$42.50, adults; (800) 367-5655 or (808) 949-6626.

Helena's Hawaiian Foods, 1240 N. School St., Honolulu, (808) 845-8044.

Iva's Place, 1333 N. King St., Hono-lulu, (808) 841-4827.

Legendary Luau at Kona Village Resort, Hawaii—$76, adults; (800) 367-5290 or (808) 432-5450.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Luau, Hawaii—$76, adults; (808) 882-5810.

Old Lahaina Luau, Maui—$79, adults; (800) 248-5828 or (808) 667-1998.

Ono Hawaiian Foods, 726 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu, (808) 737-2275.

Paradise Cove, Oahu—$60, adults; (800) 775-2683 or (808) 842-5911.

Polynesian Cultural Center, Oahu—$69, adults; (800) 367-7060 or (808) 923-2911 www.polynesia.com.

Royal Luau, Oahu—$81, adults; (808) 931-7194.

Photography by Douglas Peebles

This article was first published in March 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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