A traditional Hawaiian feast on the island of Maui
by Charles N. Barnard
"There were no Department of Agriculture-approved pigs available in Hana," the hotel chef told me, "so we used to buy them on the other side of Maui and fly them here, almost like passengers, on the small Cessna commuter plane. 'Buying a seat for the pig,' we called it—expensive, but we had no choice. Our luau has always been the guests' favorite event of the week."
They have been cooking luau pigs and other foods at the hideaway Hana Maui Hotel for more than 40 years. Every Thursday night, on the beach that James Michener called the most beautiful in the Pacific, this homestyle Hawaiian feast is prepared in traditional style.
Visitors to Hawaii often say there are two island treats above all others that they must experience before they go home—a lei of scented flowers around their neck and a luau by a beach at sunset. The visitor's wish being Hawaii's command, both leis and luaus are not hard to find, often in combination. Hotels on all of the five main islands offer a schedule of weekly luaus; independent luaus operate somewhere every night. A million or more tourists a year go to luau parties. There is no excuse for a Hawaii visitor to go home without finding and participating in some version of the island feast.
The question is, which version?
Luau is one of those fluid, evocative Hawaiian words, like muumuu or hula;
we know what it means—but what does it really mean? A finger-lickin',
slightly gluttonous Polynesian feast, yes? With rum drinks and mountains
of tropical fruit and pretty girls dancing in grass skirts by the light
of flaming torches and . . .er, well, what else?
"There are only three parts of a modern luau that are the same as the old days," says a lady known far and wide as Auntie Malia: " . . .the pig, the salt and the poi." (Poi, often likened to wallpaper paste by those not accustomed to it, is mashed taro root, a nearly tasteless staple of the Hawaiian diet.) Auntie goes on:
"Everything else they serve at luaus these days has been put on the buffet table for the tourists—which may
be just as well, because not even Hawaiians would eat what they served in the real old days."
Auntie Malia Solomon is an authority on Hawaiian customs, crafts and culture. She will hold forth on almost any topic a visitor may want to know more about, and what this motherly little lady doesn't know or can't demonstrate, she will find in reference sources. She often speaks bluntly about luaus.
"'Luau' isn't even the correct name," Auntie huffs. "The celebration was called a pa'ina. It was like
Thanksgiving—or a big birthday party. The food was mostly baked wild hogs, or a specie of three-toed dogs that had been fattened on a diet of poi. Poi-dogs they were called. Men did all the cooking.
"After 1856, the term 'luau' began to be used. Nobody knows why, unless the haoles [mainlanders] got it wrong somehow. Luau is the Hawaiian word for taro tops. Maybe it came into use because these leaves were always used to wrap foods for the oven . . . ."
The earth-oven, or imu, is the heart of any luau (or, New Englanders will note, clambake). It is simply a pit dug three or four feet into the ground or beach sand, then filled with rocks and firewood. But not just any rocks and firewood. The favored wood is kiawe (say "kee-AH-vay"), which is mesquite in the American southwest. The stones of choice are rounded, volcanic-lava boulders, usually grey-black, porous and about the size of a human head. The best specimens are said to be found in stream beds, not on beaches.
After a fire has been kept roaring in the pit for two or three hours, rocks in the imu become "red hot." How hot is that?, you may ask a husky Hawaiian who is laboring over the heat. Don't raise silly questions about time and temperature, you technician! This is serious, creative cooking we are doing here, not a physics experiment!
The rocks are hot, perhaps 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. They do not quite glow, but they nestle in a bed of ruby coals. When it is time to put the pig
into the pit, any pieces of unburned wood are removed and the rocks are
leveled off. A layer of shredded banana stumps (the thick, moist stalk
of the banana palm) is put over the rocks, then a layer of green leaves
from the ti plant.
Now comes the pig, anything from a dressed weight of 75 pounds to 400. Sometimes two pigs are cooked in one imu. Nowadays, for convenience in handling,
the porker, wrapped in ti leaves, is lifted into the imu in a wire basket.
It is then covered with more leaves, a blanket of wet burlap bags and
a tarpaulin. Finally, a heavy layer of earth is shoveled over all.
Cooking time is subject to many variables, but the result (after five or six hours, usually) is what is known as kalua pig—i.e., pig that has been steam-baked at about 400 degrees (a guess; Hawaiians don't use meat thermometers) or until the meat can be pulled off the bones by hand.
Alas, it is necessary to report that although the above is the way kalua pig should be prepared, not every luau host is scrupulous in observing tradition. One hotel is reported to have paraded a nicely "glazed" but solid fiberglass replica of a pig past unknowing diners at the beginning of every luau; the pork which was subsequently served had been cooked in commercial ovens.
Another luau now operating on Oahu cooks a small pig in an imu "for show," but, unannounced to the patrons, serves meat which has been cooked elsewhere. The proprietor of this well-known operation says the "demonstration pig" is good for two nights and then "goes back to the pigs" as garbage. The man's assertion that "everyone does the same thing because the health department will not approve serving food that has been cooked in the ground" is, fortunately for tradition, not true.
In other words, there are luaus and there are luaus. The most visible style is that produced, along with music, dancers, masters of ceremonies and audience participation, at major hotels.
On Waikiki Beach, the Royal Hawaiian serves a Sunday luau on its Diamond Head-facing lawn. An
Executive Chef concedes that the affair has to be a buffet designed to accommodate the tastes of 300 customers from everywhere. "People don't really want a luau, they want something called a luau — with salads, corn on the cob, roast beef, chicken teriyaki—and just enough Hawaiian food to make it all seem authentic."
A man named Chuck Machado was sometimes called the "king of luaus" on Oahu. He produced the feasts for private parties, for one Waikiki hotel and for busloads of tourists at an island beach. He says he used up so many rocks (they eventually split from the heat of many fires) that he had to spend one day a month finding new ones at a "secret location." He also imported large quantities of ti leaves from several neighbor islands. He called his style of luau "hapa hali," meaning a mixed menu, "lotsa beer and mai-tais, but no more free leis, they're getting too expensive."
Like many other visitors to Hawaii, my personal knowledge of luaus has progressed from touristy
experiences to an appreciation of the fact that good imu cooking involves a lot more than simply plopping a nice, big pua'a (pig) onto some hot rocks. A good place to witness some of the many subtleties of luau cooking in practice is at the Kalua Pig Cook Off held each year at the Royal Lahaina Resort on Maui. Finalists compete for a $1000 top prize in this happy, colorful event. Imus are dug the night before on the beach; fires are lighted the next morning at six. Later, each pig is ceremonially borne to the oven.
No restrictions are placed on "secret ingredients" which may be used for flavoring. Each chef has his own ideas of how much salt to use, how much steam-producing moisture to introduce into the imu during cooking, how much flavoring (i.e. mono, shoyu, papaya juice, garlic, whisky) to add. When the pigs come out of the ovens at 6 p.m., judges appraise appearance, texture, flavor and even the quality of the fat.
"These cook-off contestants may be some of the best young amateurs in the islands," a friend said after last
year's event, "but if you're really serious about this, you have to talk with the two acknowledged masters of
kalua pig cookery, Auntie Honey and Uncle David." And where were they? "I can't tell you yet. They may
not want to see yo —and even if they will, you must promise not to reveal their name, address or phone
number. They cater all the big private parties they can handle, they don't want any more." It sounded cloak
and dagger. I waited. At last, permission came. Go to this address. Three-thirty today. You will have an
The house is on Oahu within a shell's throw of the sea, that's all I'm allowed
to say. Auntie Honey, a handsome island woman, was making leis when I
arrived; the house was sweet with the scent of many flowers. Uncle David's
wise eyes seemed apprehensive. What was it I wanted to know? I didn't
dare say 'everything,' but before my "hour" was up, it had become two
and we were still talking.
"Kiawe wood is the best, but getting scarce. We use guava, plum and pine sometimes . . .and coconut husks
for kindling. The banana stumps must be mashed almost flat before they are put on the hot stones. We put
our pua'a in two wire baskets, one inside the other, because that lets heat circulate better. It is very important
to look for any sign of leaks during cooking, any steam or smoke coming out of the imu . . .leaks make hot
spots underground, can even start a fire and burn the pig. Preparation of the pig is very important. The
heavy muscles must be slashed on the inside and the cuts, one inch deep, filled with sea-salt . . .we use about
two pounds of salt on a 200-pound pig. The outside skin must not be cut or juices will be lost." Friends, family and children were coming and going through the house. More leis were being made in the
kitchen. We were close enough to the beach to hear the sea.
"Some of the hotels are using that liquid smoke stuff for flavoring." Uncle David made a face. "I wouldn't
waste good whiskey, either. In the old days, they used to push a bamboo pipe into the imu and pour a
gallon or so of water through it if they thought the meat would be dry.
"A 200-pound pig on the hoof will weigh 150 after butchering and it will shrink to 70 pounds in cooking.
This is enough to feed more than 200 people at a luau, maybe 250."
Auntie was cutting blossoms with a scissors, making them ready for threading. Her broad lap was a mosaic
of colored petals.
"The rocks are very important. When we finish cooking we always bury our rocks under earth
again . . .otherwise, someone might come and take them. Sometimes people ask to borrow our rocks—and
when people move in Hawaii, they always take their imu rocks with them.
"The broken rocks go to the bottom of the pit. I take the best rocks from the fire and wash and then put
inside the pig where the meat is thickest . . .this helps the cooking . . .but they have to be chosen carefully
because if a rock explodes inside a pig it blows up like a grenade and ruins the meat.
"I know the minute an imu is opened if it is going to be a good pig.
You can tell by the smell. The meat is pulled from the bones by hand and
put into a shredding pan with the fat . . . . This is where it picks up
its flavor and juicyness. We have a lot of 'greasy mouths' in Hawaii!
"We cook sweet potatoes, taro, breadfruit and bananas right in the imu. We put them all in an old wooden
crate that we use over and over, and we locate this in a not-too-hot area of the imu. We cook fish wrapped in
ti leaves, this is called laulau."
When I left, Auntie Honey placed a beautiful double-strand lei called pua kenikeni around my neck—with a
kiss, of course. Uncle David shook my hand gravely. He still didn't think any of what he had told me was
I went back to Hana, then, with all my new knowledge, back to my old island friends at the resplendent new
Hana Maui. It was Thursday, luau night. I would ride down to Hamoa Beach again on the haywagon drawn
by the two big Belgian horses, and Carole Kapu would again try to make me believe the Hawaiian legend
that imu rocks must be both male and female or the pua'a won't cook right.
Later we would gather around under the heliotrope trees near the beach and the boys would open the oven
in a cloud of delicious steam, and lovely, island-born Carol would say, softly in the soft light, "Bless the
hands who prepared this for us . . . ."
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