One of the first things we all think of when visiting the Islands is attending a lū’au, the famous Hawaiian feast that we’ve all seen on travel shows and in National Geographic Magazine.

The historical root of the lū’au comes from ancient Hawaiian feasts called ‘aha’aina, festive events held to honor the gods and to mark major events such as dedication of a new canoe, or church, perhaps.

Another occasion traditionally celebrated by the Hawaiians was (and still is) a baby’s first birthday, called a ‘aha’aina piha makahiki, or “feast for completion of the year.” This tradition is still very much alive in Hawai’i and few couples fail to observe the occasion. They can range from multi-day events with extended families to modest, one-day affairs with only nuclear families. In modern times, the “need” for an occasion to hold a lū’au has devolved into more of a “let’s get together and have a good time” approach, which has widened the practice tremendously.

Interestingly, the term “lū’au” wasn’t used to describe the Hawaiian feast until the 19th century. The word actually refers to the tender leaves of the taro plant, which were wrapped around the food, such as chicken or pork. It is quite possible that visitors simply named the occasion after the tasty dishes eaten there.

As mentioned, in old Hawai’i the lū’au could last for one or several days at a time. It is said that King Kamehameha the Great (1758-1819) held lū’aus that lasted for weeks. In 1847, King Kamahameha III hosted a lū’au for 10,000 people that saw 271 hogs, 482 bowls of poi and 3,125 salted fish, 1,820 fresh fish, 2,245 coconuts and 4,000 taro plants consumed.

As for how to actually conduct a lū’au, attendees would sit on mats called lau hala, made of pandanus leaves, and eat from gourds and large calabashes (wooden bowls). Food was eaten with the hands and if people licked their fingers it was a sign that the meal was delicious, or ‘ono.

Food at lū’aus is cooked by one of three methods: broiling, boiling or underground roasting and steaming in a pit-oven called an imu. Typically, lū’au food consisted of pork, fish, shrimp, native dog, poi, seaweed, sweet potatoes, coconuts, bananas, breadfruit.

Then, after “discovery” of Hawai’i by Europeans, other lū’au dishes evolved. Missionaries contributed cake, the Chinese brought chicken and long rice, whalers contributed lomolomi salmon and the Japanese brought their white rice.

Over the years pork has remained the principal delicacy of the occasion. With the exception of very large hogs that were cooked above-ground, pigs were always cooked in an imu. The cooking process itself is called kālua, hence the term “kālua pig.” To prepare the imu, a pit is dug several feet into the earth; a wood fire is kindled and basalt rocks (that can retain heat without cracking– hey, remember, they’re from volcanoes, after all!) are placed into the pit. Once the rocks are sufficiently hot the food is placed on top of them and the pit is covered with ti or banana leaves. Old mats of tapa cloth are then piled on top to keep the heat and steam contained. Later, at a time dependent on the size of the hog, the imu is unearthed and the pig is ready to eat.

Where to attend a lū’au?

There are many venues throughout the islands at which to enjoy this special Hawaiian treat. They include:

O’ahu

Kaua’i

  • Smith Family Garden Lū’au. www.smithskauai.com (808) 821-6895. A remarkable setting: a 30-acre botanical garden that has a tram to move people through the area. The grounds are adjacent to the Wailuā River, Hawai’i's only navigable river. This is a family-run business, some of whom are third- and fourth-generation; they know their Lū’au! Also available here is a two-and-a-half mile long river tour to a beautiful fern grotto.
  • Grand Hyatt Kaua’i Lū’au. www.kauai.hyatt.com Grand Hyatt Kaua’i Resort and Spa. (808) 240-6456.
  • Surf to Sunset Lū’au. www.sheraton-kauai.com At the Sheraton Kaua’i Resort. (808) 742-8205.

Maui

  • Old Lahaina Lū’au, Maui. www.oldlahainaluau.com (808) 667-1998. The operators of this business take pride in that is a strictly Hawaiian show and the Hawai’i Tourism Authority has awarded the venue the bureau’s “Keep it Hawai’i Award” on six separate occasions. They also conduct various demonstrations on such cultural subjects as woodcarving, coconut husking and lei making. Historical talks about fishermen and farmers explain the everyday life of early Hawai’i.
  • Drums of the Pacific Lū’au. www.maui.hyatt.com At the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa. (808) 667-4727
  • The Myths of Maui. www.royallahainaresort.com At the Royal Lahaina Resort. (808) 661-9119.
  • Sunset Lū’au. www.makenaresortmaui.com At the Makena Beach & Golf Resort. (808) 874-1111.
  • Wailele Polynesian Lū’au. www.westinmaui.com At the Westin Maui Resort. (808) 661-2992.

Big Island

  • Kona Village Lū’au. www.konavillage.com (800) 367-5290. The only resort on the island with thatched-roof bungalows (and no telephones, TVs or radios in the rooms; sounds good to me!) They have been conducting their lū’aus for over 40 years so they are doing something right (must be tough on the local hog population, though…) On Wednesdays the lū’au focuses on Hawaiian culture, to include live demonstrations on how to make poi. On Fridays, visitors learn how to open coconuts.
  • Gathering of the Kings. www.islandbreezeluau.com At the Fairmont Orchid. (808) 329-8111.
  • Lava, Legends and Legacies Polynesian Lū’au. www.hawaiihotels.com At the Royal Kona Resort. (808) 329-3111.
  • Legends of the Pacific Lū’au. www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com At the Hilton Waikoloa Village. (808) 886-1234.

This article was written with primary input from a wonderful article entitled ‘Aha’aina by Sheila Sarhangi, in the March, 2010 Alaska Airlines magazine. See the kind of neat stuff one can learn from the seat-back magazines on airplanes?