Learn the history of the Hawaiian luau

Categorized as Hawaiian History

Even if you’ve never experienced an authentic Hawaiian luau, odds are you’re familiar with the overall gist of this traditional island take on feasting and festivities. From a full-on smorgasbord of roasted pig and smoked salmon to the soothing sounds of hula music, you haven’t officially settled into your Hawaii vacation rental until you’ve experienced a proper luau for yourself. However, there’s plenty of rich history and cultural practices that helped shape the luau into the celebration it is today.

Read on to learn about the origins of the traditional Hawaiian luau before you embark on your trip to any of the native islands:

A changing of the guard

The original Polynesian inhabitants of Hawaii believed in putting on giant feasts for major milestones and celebrations. These were called an “aha’aina,” with “aha'” roughly translating to “gathering” and “‘aina” to “meal.” These banquets would take place after accomplishments ranging from a battle victory to a new invention, however, the celebrations were also extremely segregated. According to the Polynesian Cultural Center, women would have to eat separately from men, and were not able to indulge in the finer foods of the feast, such as pork, moi or bananas. Much of this separation was relative to native religious beliefs and practices.

“Before King Kamehameha II, women could not eat with men at luaus.”

However, in 1819, the dawn of a new era in Hawaiian monarchy also proved to be a changing of the guard in relation to these feasting traditions. The year marked the emergence of King Kamehameha II, who put an end to the gender segregation of these celebratory meals, one of many cultural modifications he would make during his tenure. He began encouraging women and men to dine together, and no type of food was off limits to anyone. Eventually, the term “luau” was used to describe these epic feasts, with luau being the Hawaiian word for the taro leaf, a spinach-like vegetable that was a common ingredient in many Polynesian dishes.

Traditional luau features

A 19th century luau is quite different than the banquets of today. For starters, it was customary for everyone to sit on the ground. Luau diners would rest on Lauhala mats to provide a more intimate feel for the meal. Attendees would also be surrounded by exotic flowers and ferns to help create a more tranquil setting. You would not find any utensils to be used at the older luaus as everyone shared dishes with each other, using their hands to scoop or peel away at various entrees.

A typical luau meal will contain dozens of dishes. The main entrees tend to be salted moi (a fish for royalty amongst ancient Hawaiians), roasted hog, bowls of poi (a pudding-like dish derived from taro leaves), bananas, rice, sweet potatoes, yams, coconuts and many other variations of side dishes. These gatherings would be massive, with anywhere between hundreds to thousands of people spending entire days preparing and cooking for the epic luaus. Of course, there’s certainly no specific amount of people necessary to enjoy a traditional Hawaiian luau, so try to prepare one for your travel group during your stay at a Hawaii vacation rental during your next trip!