Royal court and hula dancers at the Sheraton Kauai luau | Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson

Royal court and hula dancers at the Sheraton Kauai luau | Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson

Lūʻau weren’t always called lūʻau. Until the mid-1800s small get-togethers were called pāʻina and large banquets — the equivalent of today’s lūʻau — were referred to as ʻahaʻaina. These root words mean, among other things, “gathering” (ʻaha) and “eating” (ʻāina).

Local records show the word “lūʻau” was first publicly used to describe the ʻahaʻaina in 1856, in the pages of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser (the weekly predecessor of what later would be The Honolulu Advertiser). The word lūʻau also refers to the leafy top of the young taro plant, especially when baked in coconut cream with chicken or octopus. Not surprisingly, this dish is a staple of the lūʻau menu.

Much has changed since the days of the ancient lūʻau. Women and men are allowed to eat together, which was forbidden in Hawaiʻi before the Hawaiian culture’s system of kapu (taboos) was eliminated in 1819. Women are also allowed to eat foods that were once denied them, such as bananas, coconuts, pork, turtle and several types of fish.

Luau Dance and Entertainment

The lyrical hula dance — now referred to as the ancient, or kahiko, style of hula — was once accompanied with chants (mele) to honor the gods. Today it is performed for entertainment and to remember the ways of old. A more modern style, called ʻauana, has become popular since the 1970s, when a renaissance of native Hawaiian culture began. Both styles are performed at lūʻau, and commercial events often showcase Tahitian and Samoan dance styles as well. Tahiti and Samoa are believed to be ancestral homelands of the Hawaiians.

Luau Foods

Although some lūʻau menus have evolved to include sushi, teriyaki chicken, Chinese manapua buns and the ubiquitous macaroni salad, traditional lūʻau food is served at many events. Authentic dishes include:

  • kalua pork (an entire pig roasted underground in a handmade pit called an ʻimu oven)
  • lomi lomi salmon (diced with tomatoes and onions, like a salsa)
  • chicken long rice (transparent noodles)
  • huli-huli (barbequed) chicken
  • haupia (coconut custard)
  • laulau (pork, chicken or fish wrapped and steamed in ti leaves)
  • poi (taro root mashed with water into a pale purple paste)

Contemporary Luau Celebrations

As Christianity swept through Hawaiʻi in the 19th century, the lūʻau lost its pagan roots and became more commonly a chance to relax and enjoy family and friends with good food and music. This spirit prevails in nearly every aspect of life in Hawaiʻi. One of the most dutifully observed local rituals is the “baby lūʻau,” a grand celebration staged on a child’s first birthday. Lūʻau are also held for graduations, class reunions, and other important events.