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Luaus, Homey to Hokey

Whether at a down-home church fund-raiser or a posh resort production, visitors can find a festive feast that captures the flavor of the islands

August 20, 2000|CHERYL CHEE TSUTSUMI | Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a freelance writer living on Oahu

HONOLULU — Come luau time at Kaumakapili Church in Honolulu, nobody in the congregation gets much rest.

Church members spend four days preparing enough food for the diners--2,000 of them. Chairwoman Ruby Kaneao's shopping list is mind-boggling: 2,100 pounds of pork, 800 pounds of poi, 270 pounds of sweet potatoes, 250 pounds of swordfish, 170 pounds of salmon and 275 whole pineapples.

No wonder it takes 200 volunteers organized into about 30 committees to handle the details--from poi to parking to publicity.

"We have three committees for the pig alone: one to take care of cooking it, another to handle deboning it and the third to make sure it's kept hot," Kaneao says with a laugh.

At a time when a corps of talented chefs and their gourmet cuisine are stealing the spotlight of Hawaii's dining scene, it's easy to forget an old tradition: the luau. But as a lifetime resident of the islands, I still think this festive feast is one of the best ways to savor the flavor of Hawaiian culture, whether you're at a community event in rural Oahu or a posh resort on the Big Island's Kohala Coast.

Some luaus are merely tourist spectacles, distortions of native culture. Others are better--more authentic. The trick is picking the right one.

Legend says the luau originated centuries ago, during the reign of Chief Hawaii Loa. His daughter was born on a bright, moonlit night, and thereafter, whenever the moon was roundest--usually on the 16th day of the lunar month--people celebrated with music, dance and copious food and drink.

This fete was called ahaaina, which translates as "to collect together for eating." The word "luau" was adopted in the mid-1800s, a reference to the leafy green tops of taro plants that were served at the gatherings.

Luaus don't get much more authentic than Kaumakapili Church's celebration, held only on the third Saturday of July.

Volunteers warmly welcome guests into a social hall adorned with vivid flowers and foliage handpicked that morning from church members' yards. Someone's uncle plays the ukulele, a dad dances, a sister sings. The home-grown entertainment may lack polish, but not pizazz. The camaraderie is infectious. First-timers arrive as strangers and leave as friends.

That's not to say an authentic luau can't be found at a resort. One of the best is at Kona Village Resort, on the western shores of the Big Island. The resort is laid out like an old Polynesian village, with 125 thatch-roofed bungalows set by the beach and around palm-fringed lagoons. (The rooms don't have alarm clocks, radios or TVs; you feel as if you've been whisked back to old Hawaii, ambience that adds to the luau experience.)

Here, as at most traditional luaus, the menu centers on kalua pig (kalua means "to bake in the underground oven"). Preparations begin around 9 a.m., when the staff lights mesquite wood and shredded banana tree trunks in an imu, a rectangular pit about 3 feet deep filled with cooking stones.

In the early afternoon, about 20 of the red-hot stones are placed inside a cleaned pig. The meat then goes into the imu, along with bundles of sweet potatoes, bananas, taro, fish and other delicacies wrapped in the leaves of the Polynesian ti plant.

The old Hawaiians had only rushes, grasses and leaves to seal in the heat, but these days wire mesh, aluminum foil, moist burlap sacks and canvas tarps protect the pig under a cover of sand and soil. After five or six hours of cooking, the succulent, smoky-flavored meat is ready to be carved and shredded by hand.

Another delicacy on Kona Village's menu is opihi, or limpets pried from lava rocks along the shore. High surf makes harvesting them a dangerous task, so they're expensive--and a rare find at luaus nowadays.

The rest of the spread includes more traditional fare: squid luau, squid and coconut milk cooked in taro leaves; baked sweet potato; ahi poke, chunks of raw yellowfin tuna mixed with seaweed, Hawaiian salt and ground kukui nuts (also called candlenuts); and banana and papaya poe, mashed fruit baked with pineapple juice and coconut milk.

Kona Village strives for the low-key ambience of an authentic luau, not the glitzy spectacle offered at some other resorts. The same staff who readied the imu and prepared the kalua pig performs traditional hula and oli (storytelling chants), making the event more of a family-oriented, community affair.

Centuries ago, the luau menu included large wooden bowls of opihi, raw crab and squid blended with taro tops and coconut milk. Raw beef liver was blended with chopped seaweed and ground kukui nuts to make a dish called ake.

Hawaiian farmers used to cultivate nearly 200 varieties of taro, which ranged in color from white to deep purple. The farmers knew which varieties had the tastiest leaves, which were best cooked and eaten whole like a potato, and which were preferable pounded with water into poi.

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