There is no celebration in the world quite like a traditional Hawaiian luau. The people of Polynesia have a rich history spanning thousands of years emphasizing that the consumption of food is a sacred event. The Hawaiian culture delights in sharing that unique history with its guests. For those reasons, a Hawaiian luau isn’t just any celebration.
A modern luau seamlessly melds the precise preparation of staple Hawaiian dishes like Kalua pork and laulau. But it also adds the exciting spectacle of Hula dancers and live music. This creates a communal celebration where all are welcome. However, the key to an authentic Hawaiian luau lies in the preparation.
To provide the luau feast requires a special method. To cook all the food at a luau to perfection, Hawaiians use the underground oven called the imu.
Kalua, as in kalua pork, can be translated to ka meaning ‘the’, and lua, meaning ‘pit’. It is the process of cooking in an earthen oven, and that’s exactly what the imu is.
Throughout Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and parts of North and South America, underground ovens have been used. Whatever the dish, they’re made to cook and steam cuisines to perfection. The Hawaiian people utilize the imu for this very reason. The underground oven carefully cooks whole pigs, bananas, sweet potatoes, taro, chicken, fish, and breadfruit.
These dishes are essential in making the Hawaiian luau what it is.
The imu and in turn the Hawaiian luau are distinct to Hawaii. The reason being, some of the items and materials necessary can only be found on the islands. The imu pit doesn’t use dry heat to cook, instead, it uses green plant materials to create steam.
To create that steam, the Hawaiian people have always used a variety of grasses and leaves. Banana stumps, banana leaves, hohono grass, ti leaves, and famously coconut palm leaves are all used. They become the hali’i – or the vegetation “spread like the mat covering the floor” of the imu.
For those not in Hawaii, there are vegetation alternatives to create an imu. Corn husks, cabbage leaves, thistle, lettuce, and watercress can all be used. However, the natural nutrients and tropical climate fueling Hawaiian vegetation is why imitations outside the islands can’t quite live up.
Once you have the food and green plants for steaming, it’s time to prepare the imu pit. The wonderful thing about imu pits is that they are designed to fit the celebration.
You dig it as big or as small as necessary to fit the food you wish to prepare. An average imu pit is around 2 to 4 feet deep and they are all rounded holes with sloping sides. The diameter is determined by the amount of food. However, it also has to be large enough to accommodate the rocks and hali’i.
Some things to keep in mind when building your imu:
After the imu is built, ignite the kindling engulfing the larger wood pieces in a blaze to heat the stones. In about 1 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the imu, the wood will turn to charcoal causing the stones to drop inward in the pit. At this point the rocks, are likely to be at their maximum heat and can be levelled out making them even for the double-layered hali’i necessary to create steam.
For the biggest Hawaiian luaus, a Kalua pig is the showcase delicacy and planning is of the utmost importance. The first step is in finding the whole pig. On average, a 100-pound pig will feed 100 people. Although a local butcher shop will sell you a whole pig, a local heritage or natural farmer may be a better option.
Once you have the pig, prepping and wrapping it is key to getting the flavor right.
To start, place the pig on chicken wire as it’ll be easier to remove afterward. You can also add ti leaves below the grate so that the flavor rises. After that, some of the hot stones should be added to the inner carcass. This ensures the Kalua pig cooks thoroughly inside and out.
This is also a good time to add any desired seasonings and even more ti leaves. Ti leaves are especially popular in Hawaiian luaus for their rich flavor.
Banana stumps are peeled in layers like an onion or crushed and placed directly on the hot rocks. This is to protect the food from burning. The pig and other food items are then placed on the layers of banana stumps.
Everything is then covered with banana leaves to seal in the steam or, optionally, wrapped closed with chicken wire. Once the leaves are layered in a criss-cross pattern, a burlap tarp is layered over, followed by even more leaves. This ensures that absolutely no steam escapes.
Allow to steam and cook for anywhere from 6 to 8 hours. It could also take upwards of 10, depending on the size of the pig. Afterward, the succulent kalua pork will be cooked to perfection. You’ll know because the meat shreds apart easily with a juicy fall-off-the-bone freshness and smoky richness.
It takes time to create something as special as a Hawaiian luau. Whether the years of training to become a professional Hula dancer, the days of harvesting the different plants and food items for the event, or the hours of setting up the Imu pit – it’s well worth the wait.
Authentic Hawaiian foods for luaus are made to be shared. In that way, the Hawaiian luau party is a celebration of culture. It’s where people from all backgrounds can gather to enjoy delicacies not found anywhere else in the world.
Old Lāhainā Lūʻau prides itself on Maui-style entertainment and onolicious cuisine while keeping a strong focus on Hawaiian culture. At Old Lāhainā Lūʻau, our luaus are held daily during sunset hours. This makes for a stunning show, breathtaking photo opportunities, and food cooked to perfection in traditional imu pits. Join us for the next one!
We are so excited to host you and your family for a night you won’t soon forget.