In ancient Hawaii, men and woman ate their meals apart. Commoners and women of all ranks were also forbidden by the ancient Hawaiian religion to eat certain delicacies. This all changed in 1819, when King Kamehameha II abolished the traditional religious practices. A feast where the King ate with women was the symbolic act which ended the Hawaiian religious tabus, and the luau was born.
The favorite dish at these feasts is what gave the luau its name. Young and tender leaves of the taro plant were combined with chicken, baked in coconut milk and called luau.
The traditional luau feast was eaten on the floor. Lauhala mats were rolled out and a beautiful centerpiece made of ti leaves, ferns and native flowers about three feet wide was laid the length of the mat. Bowls filled with poi, a staple of the Hawaiian diet made from pounded taro root, and platters of meat were set out and dry foods like sweet potatoes, salt, dried fish or meat covered in leaves were laid directly on the clean ti leaves.
Much to the consternation of the proper Victorian visitors, utensils were never used at a luau, instead everything was eaten with the fingers. Poi of various consistencies got its name from the number of fingers needed to eat it… three finger, two finger, or the thickest, one finger poi.
A guest at King Kalakaua’s coronation luau in 1883 described the lavish decorations typical of the traditional luau, “Tables were draped with white, but the entire tops were covered with ferns and leaves massed together so as almost to form a tablecloth of themselves; quantities of flowers were placed about mingling with the ferns… The natives had turned out in great numbers, and the scent of their leis of flowers and maile leaves was almost overpowering.”
These royal luaus tended to be big. One of the largest ever was hosted by Kamehameha III in 1847. The list of foods prepared included 271 hogs, 482 large calabashes of poi, 3,125 salt fish, 1,820 fresh fish, 2,245 coconuts, 4,000 taro plants and numerous other delicacies. King Kalakaua, who was known as the “Merry Monarch” for his love of parties and dance, invited over 1500 guests to his 50th birthday luau. They were fed in shifts of 500!
The luau really gained in popularity with the growth of tourism to Hawaii. The ocean liners of the 30s to 50s brought tourists eager experience Hawaiian customs and food and entertainment. Hula girls and ukuleles became the iconic image of Hawaii during the era.
With the advent of fast and relatively affordable trans-pacific air flights came a new wave of tourists and a new love of tiki-bars, tropical luaus and all things Hawaiian.
Luaus today are not as big as those hosted by Hawaiian royalty in the 1800s, but they are a lot of fun and feature the same traditional foods… and utensils are allowed. Click to read where you can find a great luau today.