What is a Hawaiian Luau? A Brief History

 COVID UPDATE Aloha! This post — What is a Hawaiian Luau? A Brief History — was updated in May 2021. However, as we have all learned, things can change overnight, so please check with each destination before visiting. We’ve included phone numbers and links to websites where possible. Mahalo!

Luau
Photo: Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority

What is a Luau?

When we hear the word luau (LOO-ow), most often images of fire dancers, colorful floral t-shirts, and delicious mai tais come to mind. Though entertaining and fun, these entertaining events bear little resemblance to the traditional celebrations of the native Hawaiians. Originally knows as aha ‘aina (aha meaning “gather” and ‘aina meaning “land”), these feasts were rich with symbolism, kapus (taboos) and the spirit of aloha. Considered a time of great celebration and feasting, royal aha ‘aina’s might accommodate up to 10,000 guests with a menu including: 271 hogs, 482 gourds of poi, 602 chickens and 2,245 coconuts.

From aha ‘aina to Luau

Big things happened during these eating events. For instance, at one rather somber aha ‘aina in Kona on the Island of Hawaii in the 1800s, soon after the death of King Kamehameha I, his son, King Kamehameha II (aka Liho Liho) and his stepmother Queen Ka’ahumanu lifted the kapu of men and women eating together, that the term luau came to be. Though much has changed since the ancient days, you can find hints of the traditional aha ‘aina dishes on modern day luau menus. Look past the pasta salad, linen napkins and fruit cocktail to better understand this ancient celebration that has lived on long after the kings and queens of Hawaiʻi.

luau plate
Photo: Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority

What to Eat at a Luau?

  • Poi [poh-ee] – a root from the taro plant that is cooked and pounded to create a gooey bland paste. This was the starch staple of the native Hawaiʻian diet. Poi is a traditional food at a luau.
  • Kalua pig – rubbed with sea salt and cooked in an imu (an underground oven heated with rocks and kindling). Pig was forbidden to all but the Alii (native Hawaiʻian chiefs).
  • Squid Luau [loo-ou] – a mixture of squid, coconut milk and taro leaves that is baked or steamed.
  • Poke [po-kee] – fresh raw fish marinated in sea salt, seaweed and kukui nut oil.
  • Lau-lau [lou lou] – tender young taro leaf tips and meat wrapped and cooked in ti leaves inside the imu [ee-moo].
  • Limu [lee-moo] – fresh seaweed. Often ground into a relish and served as a side dish.
  • Opihi [opi-hi] – small sea snails that cling to the reef. The Hawaiian version of the oyster, they are eaten raw with a touch of sea salt.
  • Haupia [how-pee-ah] – a coconut dessert pudding made with coconut milk and arrowroot.
poi
Photo: Mark Kushimi

Where to Go

Want to check it out for yourself? Find your island below and check out some options.

Oʻahu

Ko Olina

Famous Paradise Cove Luau on the Beach at Ko Olina Resort — Spend an evening at Paradise Cove Luau, the best luau on Oʻahu with oceanfront views! Combining tradition, cultural experience, thrilling hula and fire knife dancing and amazing buffet food, this Ko Olina luau is an island favorite.

North Shore

Polynesian Cultural Center Full-Day Pass with Luau Dinner & Night Show — Learn about Polynesian cultures by visiting six unique villages at Polynesian Cultural Center, then enjoy a delicious luau dinner and an incredible evening show with this all-inclusive, full-day pass with Waikiki pick-up.

Toa Luau at Waimea Valley & Free Ticket to Waimea Falls — Experience true aloha with Toa Luau, an authentic Polynesian show at Waimea Valley. Enjoy hula performance, fire knife dance, kava ceremony and Hawaiʻian dinner buffet. Includes free admission to Waimea Falls.

Waikiki

Hilton Waikiki Starlight, Waikiki’s Best Luau & Premium Gourmet Dinner — Don’t miss the Waikiki Starlight Luau at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the best luau in Waikiki. Enjoy an elegant evening filled with traditional Polynesian performances, premium dinner buffet and spectacular fire knife dancers.

Maui

Ka’anapali

Old Lahaina Luau, Maui’s Most Traditional Hawaiʻian Oceanfront Dinner & Show — Well known as Maui’s most authentic and popular luau, the Old Lahaina Luau offers a beachfront experience complete with traditional Hawaiian food and entertainment. Be sure to book Maui’s best luau today for an unforgettable evening in paradise.

Maui Nui Luau at the Sheraton Maui Resort at Black Rock on Kaanapali Beach — Located beachfront on Kaanapali Beach, the Sheraton Maui Luau features music, dance and history of the islands right at the foot of the famous cliff Black Rock. Spend an evening at one of the best Maui luau for a night you will not soon forget!

Wailea

Te Au Moana Luau and Fire Knife Show at Wailea Beach Marriott — Experience the legacy and culture of the Hawaiian islands at the amazing Te Au Moana Luau in Wailea, featuring wonderful food, drink and stories about the ocean!

Hawaiʻi 

Kona

Oceanfront Royal Kona Luau with Open Bar — Voyagers of the Pacific Show — Have an evening of Polynesian food and entertainment that you will not soon forget with one of the best luau on the Big Island! The Royal Kona Luau awaits with authentic Hawaiian music and dance, and even a thrilling Samoan fire knife dance.

Kohala

Legends of Hawaiʻi Luau at Hilton Waikoloa Village — A Big Island luau featuring a delicious island buffet, beautiful Hawaiian music and dance and the epic stories of Hawaiʻi and her remarkable people.

Kauai

Smith’s Family Garden Luau, Kauaʻi’s Most Famous Luau & Fire Knife Show — Celebrate the Hawaiian tradition with Smith’s Tropical Paradise Luau at the Smith family garden in Wailua, featuring a delicious luau buffet feast, open bar and live hula dancing performances from Asia and the Pacific Islands.

by Leela Lindner

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