Saturday, June 19, 2010

Luau History and Culture

A luau is a Hawaiian feast. You may have been to a luau party here on the mainland, or visited a luau on your recent vacation to Hawaii. This meal and party often features traditional Hawaiian food, including poi and salmon, and is often known for the kalua pig, which has been roasted in earth for at least a day prior to the festivities. Luaus are also known for the entertainment, including Hawaiian music and hula dancing.

Today, luaus are often synonymous with parties for those from Hawaii, so you may see graduation luaus, birthday luaus, or even wedding luaus. However, the concept of a luau is actually quite old, and originally it meant a very specific type of celebration.

The name 'Luau' dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Before that, this type of party was called a paina or ahaaina. The name 'luau' originated from a type of food traditionally served at a luau celebration: young taro (a type of tuber plant) tops, baked with coconut milk and served with octopus or chicken.

Luau parties originated because in centuries ago, men and women ate separately, and commoners and women were forbidden by ancient Hawaiian customs from eating certain foods, considered delicacies. In 1819, however, King Kamehameha II abolished this practice. In a symbolic feast, the King ate with women. The luau was born out of this feast. These original luaus were quite large affairs, often with hundreds of guests. In fact, some luaus thrown by the King had visitors eating in shifts because there were hundreds invited to these gatherings.

Traditional luau feasts are eaten on the floor, while sitting on special mats. Foods included sweet potatoes, dried fish, and other dried foods laid directly on leaves. Another traditional luau food in these early decades was poi. Poi is a staple of the Hawaiian diet to this day, and it is made from taro root that has been pounded into a thick paste. All of these items were eaten with the fingers; no utensils were used.

Today, 'luau' parties are often simply Hawaiian themed. They may lack the traditional taro tops or kalua pig, and range drastically in their adherence to luau traditions. In fact, most are not considered luaus by purists or many who were raised on the islands, although they can be a fun way to bring a little island spirit to your summer parties.

Today, there are many commercial luaus put on just for tourists. In Hawaii, these are held weekly at the most popular hotels. Often they are held outdoors on the hotel grounds. These outdoor parties often sell crafts, souvenirs, and photos to tourists. Like luau parties you may stage in your backyard, these vary greatly in their style and adherence to the luau tradition, because they are geared towards the tourist market. They often include Hawaiian or Polynesian dancing; during many luaus, hula dancers may teach visitors how to dance a simple hula dance. Such luaus can be found all over the islands, and are often seen in brochures or other tourist-aimed publications.

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