It is 6:30 in the morning and Gaylane Clark is starting the fire of kiawe wood for tonight's luau. High above the resort community of Wailea on Maui, the sky above the dormant Haleakala volcano is turning pink with the dawn.
"It takes two days to prepare for the luau," says Clark, a tall Hawaiian with a tattoo on his right arm and two diamond earrings in his left ear. "You have to collect the rocks, the wood, the leaves. On the morning of the luau, you dig the imu , the pit in the earth where the pig cooks."
Clark continued his explanation as he worked. "You line the pit with river stones and put kiawe wood on the bottom. The stones have to be river lava and porous, so that they don't explode when they are heated to 800 degrees. Then you light the fire."
A Visitor's 'Must'
Hawaiian luaus have become as much a staple of a visit to the Islands as hula lessons and macadamia nuts. Hotels on all of the major islands offer these evening outdoor buffets featuring traditional Hawaiian dishes and Polynesian entertainment.
We discovered some of the best of the commercial luaus, and our chance meeting with Clark gave us an opportunity to watch the entire process.
The central dish at all the luaus is the kalua pig. By 9:30 a.m., a few curious onlookers had come to watch as Clark trimmed the 180-pound carcass and prepared it for the imu .
"My father has been doing this on Maui for more than 30 years," he said. "In the old days, an imu would be dug for the whole village and each family would put something into it. Fish, vegetables, pigs, chickens, everything was cooked in the pit. Today we just use the imu for cooking the pig. And we use foil in addition to bananas leaves to cover the meat. It makes the pig cook faster."
Hours to Heat Up
It takes about three hours for the fire to heat the rocks to about 800 degrees. Then the pig is placed on wet banana leaves in a wire cage (the ancient way was to build a rack of wood), then put on the rocks that have also been covered with wet leaves. Then the cage is covered with foil, layers of wet burlap and more banana leaves. Finally a thick layer of sand is placed over the whole to seal in the heat.
Twelve hours later, as the strains of Hawaiian music float over the luau grounds, visitors in brightly colored attire gather around the imu for the unveiling. Clark arrives with his father and two brothers to unearth the cooked pig.
First the dirt is shoveled off and steam pours from the pit. The three brothers work quickly in the hot earth. Each layer is removed, and finally the pig is revealed. The meat has fallen from the bones and is tender and white. In honor of the occasion we are offered the ears and snout--surprisingly good. Then the other meat is quickly shredded and piled onto trays.
Other dishes traditionally served at Hawaiian luaus include lomi lomi salmon, raw fish marinated in sauces and served with tomatoes and onions; laulau , seasoned pork chunks and salted butter fish wrapped in taro leaves; fresh fish (mahi-mahi, ono, or ahi ) ; baked sweet potato; steamed ulu , or breadfruit, and haupia, coconut pudding.
Another staple is poi, that bland-tasting dish made from the root of the taro plant. It is an acquired taste, but fun to try. Poi should be eaten with the first two fingers of the right hand and many eat it with lomi lomi salmon.
Luaus have long been a tradition among the Hawaiians, but the name "luau" is really a misnomer. "The correct name for a Hawaiian feast is 'Aha'aina,"' says Hawaiian historian Kahea Beckley. "It means 'gathering together' and refers to the gathering together of the bounty from the land and the sea. The ancient Hawaiians would have special feasts for weddings, religious ceremonies and family gatherings.
"Luau" refers to a special dish of creamed taro, coconut milk and chicken or octopus. This dish was popular at a famous royal feast around the turn of the century and the name stuck."
Luaus, or Aha'ainas, are still celebrated with friends and family throughout the Islands, and, although public luaus are commercialized, they are still a wonderful way for the visitor to experience a taste of old Hawaii and traditional entertainment. Typically, a hotel will host a luau on one night a week, and prices range from $25-$46 per person. Special children's prices are usually available.
Some of the luaus we can recommend:
On Hawaii (The Big Island)--Kona Village. Probably the best luau in the Islands, the feast at Kona Village is held every Friday and is so good that neighboring hotels recommend it. The resort is the closest thing any of us will ever get to a real Polynesian village, and the huge buffet includes at least 21 hot dishes. $39 per person. Reservations essential. Phone (808) 325-5555.