History of the Luau

The origin of the Maui luau was formed in ancient Hawaii, the Native Hawaiians held an Ahaaina to celebrate special occasions such a victory at war, launching a new canoe or a baby surviving its first year. Unlike today’s luau feasts, meals were traditionally eaten without utensils. People on sat on the ground atop lauhala mats woven from leaves the leaves of the pandanus or hala tree, and in keeping with Hawaiian customs, men always ate separately from women and children.The native Hawaiians believed these ceremonial gatherings honored their gods through the deep symbolism attached to the various dishes and procedures, and celebrated the unity of the people brought together by the event. People outside of royalty were forbidden to eat certain delicacies. When King Kamehameha II symbolically banished these ancient customs by eating with women and his common subjects the Luau was formed.

The name “Luau” came from the most popular dish at these feasts. Chicken and young tender leaves of taro were baked with coconut milk, which is still enjoyed today. When most people think about a Luau they think about the roasted pig. The roasted pork is cooked in an Imu which is a pit in the earth where the pig and trimmings are cooked. In this pit, wood and kindling are combined with apple-sized stones and set ablaze. Once the stones are hot, the prepared pig is stuffed with the smoldering hot stones. The stones that are still in the pit lay under ti and banana leaves. The pig is lowered into the pit with the rest of the food and then covered with more leaves and a thick cloth. Once everything is covered properly, the earth is shoveled back into the hole covering everything and causing the food to bake underground. This is the traditional Hawaiian way of cooking for a luau.


Poi is also what comes to mind for many people when thinking about a Luau. Poi is a Hawaiian staple that is used to cleanse the palette between courses. Poi is made from the cooked root of the Taro plant. Once cooked the root is pounded into a paste and thinned with water. The Poi is then allowed to ferment and it ends up as a grayish purple mixture with the consistency of a runny pudding. It is bland with a tangy aftertaste. Some other common dishes you might find at a luau are:

  • Poke: Meaning “to slice or cut” in Hawaiian, poke is a mixture of Ahi tuna, or other seafood, marinated in seaweed, chilies, and nut oils. This contribution from early Asian influences during the sugarcane plantation times is a difficult dish to make same each time.
  • Lomilomi Salmon: A popular luau side dish, lomi salmon is prepared by lomi-ing (massaging) raw salted salmon into small bites, then marinated in lemon juice, tomatoes.
  • Laulau: A traditional Hawaiian dish also prepared in an imu, laulau consists of pork, chicken or fish wrapped in taro leaf, first wrapped in luau leaves, then ti leaves.
  • Pineapple: Fresh from local fields, as well as other island fruits.
  • Haupia: A sweet coconut custard dessert.

Today’s modern luaus are very different then the luaus of the past. Local residents enjoy the luau on two occasions in particular. The most common reason for a luau is the 1st birthday of a child. Another is for graduation from High School. Visitors now seem to make up the majority of those attending the luaus with more extravagant productions by the large resorts, which combine the traditional feast and hula with the dances of Polynesia. The hula dance became a regular spectacle of entertainment as well as the introduction of Polynesian fire knife dancing. Some luaus have a combination of Polynesian dances, Hula and fire dancing in different forms. In ancient Hawaii, a time when a written language did not exist, hula and its chants played an important role in keeping history, genealogy, mythology and culture alive. With each movement – a hand gesture, step of foot, swaying of hips – a story would unfold. Through the hula, the Native Hawaiians were connected with their land and their gods.

Before the arrival of Western missionaries, the hula was danced for protocol and social enjoyment. The songs and chants of the hula preserved Hawaii’s history and culture. Many believe hula was born on the island of Molokai, but other legends tell of hula originating on Kauai. For many years following the arrival of missionaries, the hula as well as the Hawaiian language and music were suppressed. The hula, specifically, was even outlawed. It wasn’t until King David Kalakaua came to the throne in 1874 that Hawaiian cultural traditions were restored. Public performances of hula flourished and by the early 1900s, the hula had evolved with modern times.

Today, this unique art form, deeply rooted in culture, has become a worldwide symbol of Hawaiian culture.