The origin of the luau dates all the way back to ancient Hawaiian times when people used to gather and celebrate special occasions with an event known as ahaaina—aha referring to a "gathering" and aina meaning "meal." Victorious battles, religious events, and important life milestones were celebrated with these gatherings, but women and men were not allowed to eat in the same space (women were even forbidden to consume certain foods).
The contemporary version of the luau began to form in the early 1800s when King Kamehameha II ended the practice of gender segregation during these celebratory feasts and allowed women and men to dine together. Over time, the term luau came about to describe these new types of celebrations, referring to the staple dish made by cooking young taro leaves.
Luaus are still celebrated in Hawaii today, either as private functions for family and friends to celebrate together or as commercialized events for visitors to experience as they travel throughout the major islands.
Typically, luaus are synonymous with delicious locally prepared Hawaiian food. There may be variations depending on which luau you attend, but generally the menu will include an abundance of the following:
- Kalua Pig: Shredded pork that has been prepared in an imu, or underground oven.
- Shoyu Chicken: A sweet and salty chicken dish made with shoyu (soy sauce) and brown sugar, sometimes with a kick of red pepper or other spices.
- Baked Hawaiian Fish: Typically a mild, white fish such as Mahi Mahi, this dish is often baked and crusted with macadamia nuts or bread crumbs.
- Lau Lau: Meat such as fish or pork wrapped in luau leaves and slowly steamed in an imu oven.
- Chicken Long Rice: Hawaii’s answer to chicken noodle soup made from chicken stock, garlic, ginger, and bean thread noodles.
- Lomi Lomi Salmon: A side dish made with salted salmon, tomato, and green onion.
- Poke: Small, bite-sized pieces of raw fish marinated with variations of kukui nut, limu (seaweed), shoyu, or chilies.
- Squid Luau: A mixture of squid (or octopus), coconut milk, and young taro leaves, often seasoned with Hawaiian salt and onion.
- Poi: The ultimate condiment made from pounded taro root. Although it's certainly an acquired taste, we definitely recommend giving poi a try!
- Haupia: A dessert with a pudding-like consistency made of coconut milk and sugar, then sliced into squares.
What to Expect
Nowadays, luaus have transformed into a celebration of Hawaiian and Polynesian culture, with visitors from all over welcome to enjoy. The events often feature Hawaiian music, cultural activities, dancing, and most importantly, food.
Before a luau begins there may be cultural activities for guests to participate in such as lei making, canoe rides, or demonstrations of the art of hula dancing or hukilau (an ancient fishing technique). Many luaus will include an imu ceremony, with a reveal of the pig that has been slow-roasting in the underground imu oven for hours in preparation of the feast.
During dinner, attendees will hear stories and enjoy dances of the Pacific from the islands of Samoa, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii. Don’t be surprised if you or other audience members are invited to jump on stage and try out some hula moves of your own.
As the show goes on, trained fire-knife dancers expertly twirl and spin knives that have been lit on fire to create a mesmerizing display, musicians tell ancient island stories with the drumming of traditional instruments, and talented hula dancers perform beautiful, rhythmic dances of the Pacific.
What to Wear
Today’s luaus are casual by nature, but depending on which luau you decide to go with the dress code my vary. Most people just dress like they’re going out to dinner (there are plenty of great photo opportunities at a luau), but there will most likely be just as many guest wearing board shorts as there are dressed in nice clothes. Keep in mind that some luaus are held right on the beach under the stars, so comfortable shoes and a light sweater are always a good idea.
The Best Luaus on Kauai
Smith Family Garden Luau: One of Kauai’s longest-running luaus, the Smith Family Garden Luau is held on land within the sacred Wailua River Valley that has been owned by the same family for generations. Luau days vary depending on the time of year, but run Monday through Friday during the summer months.
Aulii Luau: Located in Poipu at the Sheraton Kauai Resort, Aulii Luau offers some gorgeous sunset and coastal views and is an absolute must if you’re dreaming of an oceanside luau. Make sure you book ahead well in advance for this show, as it is only held on Mondays and Thursdays.
Luau Kalamaku: A celebration of history and culture, Luau Kalamaku is held on Kilohana Plantation Estate. The award-winning theatrical show tells the story of the first voyages between Hawaii and Tahiti and features fire poi balls and traditional fire knife dancing. Held Tuesdays and Fridays throughout the year, adding Mondays in the summers.