The History of the Hawaiian Luau

The History of the Hawaiian Luau

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If you've ever visited Hawaiʻi you've probably  gone to a lūʻau but they bear little resemblance to what is often considered the first lūʻau in 1819 but the two meals do have one thing in common, and that is this dish Kalua Pua'a or Kalua pig. So thank you to hellofresh  for sponsoring this video as we explore the traditional lūʻau this time on Tasting History. So I am here at the Marriott Waikoloa on the  big island of Hawaiʻi and it is pronounced   Hawaiʻi instead of Hawaii but you'll often hear  both pronunciations. You'd be surprised at how many words change their pronunciation when the 12-letter alphabet was introduced in the 1820s,   basically just so they could fit it all into 12  letters they dropped a bunch of sounds.

Case in point the first king of a United Hawaii was not King Kamehameha but King Tamehameha with a t sound and   they wanted to not have a t in the alphabet so they  just changed his name, but it was his son Liholiho better known as King Kamehameha II who held that first lūʻau in 1819. Now a modern lūʻau like the one being held tonight here at the Marriott has many dishes that were introduced in the 19th century   but those dishes would not have been available  at that first lūʻau in 1819. In fact we only know of two dishes that were definitely served at that first lūʻau and that is pig and dog, and one of those dishes is still served at lūʻaus today.

I'm going to let you guess which one.   It's the pig. And it's often made in a similar manner to the way that it was 200 years ago in an imu, not the flightless bird, but a pit in the  ground where food is baked, and today I woke up very early, you can hear the birds waking up behind me, so I could see the beginning of the imu process.  So here we are at the Marriott where they have dug  the imu, it's an underground earth oven about four to five feet deep.

Kepanipa'a is filling it with kiawe wood which is a sweet Hawaiian mesquite,   and then laying smooth lava rock over that. He then starts the fire and gives it a few hours to heat the rocks till they're white hot. And then he takes some of those rocks and actually puts them in the pig which will help it cook it from the inside.

The rocks are then covered with banana stumps which have lots of moisture and this lets off steam so that it keeps the pork nice and moist. The pig is set on top with other meat and then more water is added for steam. Over that go ti leaves spelled T I and banana leave, and they act much the same way  that aluminum foil would to hold in the heat. Another leaf that can be used comes from the taro  plant. Another famous dish that is often served at the lūʻau that comes from the same plant is  po which is pounded up taro. Once the food is in then the imu is covered with woven mats. Traditionally they would have been woven from different types of leaves,

but today more often it's either burlap or sheets. I believe these are the Martha Stewart collection. Finally everything is buried with dirt which kills the fire but retains the heat so you have a nice slow cook, and it'll take about eight to nine hours to do the entire cooking process today, which is a lot longer than it'll take you  to make any meal from today's sponsor Hellofresh.  

Well here I am back in my kitchen at home and  Max From Hawai'i is absolutely right, the meals from Hellofresh definitely don't take all day  to make. Their meals arrive at your door with all of the ingredients pre-portioned so you can jump right into the cooking like I did for lunch today when I I made a wonderful balsamic tomato and herb chicken. It was packed with flavor and yet still light enough that I had room for one of Hellofresh's dessert offerings,  peanut butter lava cake. On Hawai'i lava flows from Kilauea, but with Hellofresh molten peanut butter flows from a rich chocolatey cake. See while Hellofresh offers over 40 different weekly recipes to accommodate any lifestyle whether you're pescetarian, vegetarian, or just a lover of tasty food they also offer sides appetizers and desserts to round out any meal. And as you can add dessert to any meal that you want you can also swap in and out different proteins and sides so that every meal that you make is a meal that you want to eat.

So go to and use my code tastinghistory16 for 16 free meals plus free shipping.   That's using my code tasting history 16, and now back to Hawai'i and that day long Kalua pig. So yeah, Kepanipa'a is going to be at this pretty much all day so I'll come back tonight to taste some of that pig, but I can't wait that long to eat luckily I have some other options and that means it's time for a scene change. And here we are! See most of us don't really want to wait all day for our Kalua pork nor do we have an imu in our backyard nor do we really want a whole pig at any given time, so luckily Chef Ippy Aiona of Ippy's Hawaiian Barbeque here in the town of Waimea has agreed to share some of his secrets in how to make Kalua pork easier and at home.

Thank you so much Max for having me and again today we're going to be doing Kalua pig. I'm going to show you two techniques. First thing we're going to do is we're actually cut up this domestic pork butt. Cut it into big chunks if  you can then we're gonna put it into our pot.   We're gonna put about two tablespoons of salt. The  salt that I'm using is Hawaiian salt. You can find this on Amazon, on the internet wherever.

Once it's in the pot we're going to add liquid smoke. So I'm going to take about a tablespoon I'm gonna pour it right over my pork like that. It smells like if you took a campfire, crushed the entire campfire up, put it in a bottle of water, shook that bottle of water that's exactly what this thing smells like. It's super cool, really convenient. So that's it, as you can see we have our salt, our  liquid smoke.

Here's the thing we're going to cover this with water, we're gonna actually take it to the stove, bring it to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer. You don't want to have this thing boiling  like mad but you definitely want it to have a good simmer,  and we're going to simmer this for about 4 hours checking it as it goes. Do not let all of the water evaporate. As you're going either add more water or keep it covered, one of the two.   You really want to keep the liquid above your pork  throughout this whole process.

Now for our second technique, this one takes a little more time but we're going to develop a few more flavors in this also. We're gonna actually use banana leaves. This  is going to mimic that imu flavor. These leaves I got in my dad's backyard but look if your dad doesn't grow banana leaves or bananas in his backyard you can find this at a lot of Mexican  grocery stores or Asian grocery stores.   What we're going to do is we're going to put the pork onto the banana leaf heavily salted with the little Hawaiian salt, and then we're gonna wrap it. Fold it over, fold it again and fold it one more time.   And then we're gonna actually put it back into the pan, we're gonna put it into our smoker. 

The wood chips that we're using today it's actually going to be a mesquite, so this is going to be kiawe wood, something that we have locally here. Feel free to use apple, hickory, whatever woods that you have at home, and we're going to smoke this at 220 degrees  for about six hours. Total it's going to take nine hours, so what you're going to do is you're going to smoke it for six hours pull it out of your smoker, check it and then you're gonna cover that  whole pan with tin foil and pop it right back in.

That's gonna finish it and let it- keep it  really moist so the last few hours it doesn't dry out,  and it'll make sure that the cooking is cooked  all the way through. All right, now we're going to pull it out of the smoker and this is the best part guys. If you think opening Christmas presents are great opening your pork butt it's the best. It really is. So we're gonna put it into a big pan and shred it. Usually when we're doing the whole pig it's a big process so we put it in a big pan and everybody gets involved and shreds it up.

Season it as you go with some Hawaiian salt and enjoy.   And here we are we have our two Kalua porks. Which one is this? So this is going to be the one that we put in the water. So this is the one with the liquid smoke, salt and water.   As you can see it's a little bit not as long and shredded, and a little more moist than the other one. Hm. Hm.

Yup tastes like Kalua pig. It is moist. It's really good. You get the- I got like just the individual grains of salt like-  that's my favorite part the crunch. Yeah, yeah.

And then this one is the the smoked one. This is the banana leaves, smoke and just a little bit of kiawe wood.   You can see also it's a little more cold like more- you know long strands.

[Nom nom] Also really good too. Mhm. Yeah it's a little sweeter. It's really, really good. I think the fat stays in this one a little more where the other one the fat escapes in the water a little more.   This one kind of you know, that stays in there. Yeah. So I'm probably gonna finish this entire bowl but we still have another Kalua pig that I'm going to be eating tonight so I don't want to fill up completely so I'll let you eat that bowl and I'll eat this bowl, fair enough? Sounds good. Man I eat two of these balls though.

So thank you so much Ippy for having me. If you are ever in Waimea here on the big island make sure to check out Ippy's Hawaiian Barbeque and if you are not then pick up Ippy's cookbook just came out very recently, it has lots of recipes that we've done. Yeah, it has the Kalua pig. Has the Kalua pig, and lots of other recipes that obviously we haven't done seeing is we've only done one recipe.    We'll work our way  through when we get him back to Hawaii.

That's right   And like I said I still have one more Kalua pork  to try tonight at the lūʻau, and when that pig comes out it's very important because there are a lot of hungry tourists to feed but it pales in comparison to the importance of the pig that was served at the first lūʻau in 1819. And while today a lūʻau is fun and entertaining, I'm thinking that first one in 1819 was a very serious meal. So I would venture to say that the lūʻau of Liholiho, better known as King Kamehameha II is the most important meal in all of Hawaiian history. And to understand why that is you have to understand this system that they were living under, kapu.

Kapu means forbidden and today you'll often see it on signs around the islands   that mean like this area is off limits but that's just a fraction of what it actually means. Before the 19th century kapu was a set of rules and prohibitions that governed every aspect of Hawaiian life. It was politics, lifestyle, and religion all wrapped up into one set of rigid rules.  

These could be things like not cutting down a certain type of tree, or not fishing during a certain time of year, and even if you broke kapu by mistake it didn't matter.  The punishment was swift and harsh, very often leading to your death. Now much of the kapu system governed food, what you could eat, and with whom you could eat it. Many foods were off limits to commoners and to ALL women. Women couldn't eat coconuts, many types of reef fish shark turtle, and 67 of the 70 varieties of banana were kapu to women. 

But perhaps most off-limits was pork because the pig was associated with the god Lono, and it was frequently used as a sacrificial offering.   And the system was rigid and stifling not just to  the commoners but to everyone. Even many of the chiefly class known as the ali'i found themselves confined by the rigidity of these rules, and the reason that people followed them was not only not to be bludgeoned to death as punishment for breaking it, but also because when you broke it, it would anger the gods. The system was only lifted on one occasion, the chief's death. After the chief died there was a period of what is known as 'ai noa, or free eating, and the chief's family would  leave the area while the body was being prepared   and the bones would be hidden away somewhere  on the island and during that time it was pandemonium! Shortly after the death of King Kamehameha the Great a Reverend William Ellis wrote "When we landed on Owhyhi, signs of desolation  met our eyes everywhere and were proof of the excesses that had been committed at the recent death of Tamehameha...

forbidden foods are devoured without scruple, especially by women, rights of ownership are disregarded; force becomes the supreme law; the voice of the chiefs is powerless; old defenses are revenged with blood or pillage-   in a word unbelievable scenes of disorder, cruelty,  and debauchery take place all over, encouraged by lack of punishment." And when Kamehameha I died his son who was 22 Liholiho became chief,   and put kapu back in place and order was restored.  Everything went back the way that it had been done for hundreds and hundreds of years... but something was a little different this time.

First Liholiho was NOT his father. King Kamehameha the Great united the Hawaiian islands for the first time into one kingdom, and held them together through diplomacy and a bit of force, but mostly through the respect of his people. Liholiho... ehhh not so much. I mean he wasn't a ne'er-do-well or anything, but he was definitely more interested in partying and buying big boats from the British than governing.   And his father seemed to know that so when Liholiho  became King Kamehameha II he would share the responsibility of governing Hawai'i. Most of the work was done by the first Kamehameha's favorite and most powerful wife, Ka'ahumanu.

They named her Kuhina Nui which was a new title   that basically gave her just as much power as the new king. So put yourself in her shoes, you are powerful, respected and you're doing most of the hard work of governing the Hawaiian islands, and here's this 22 year old who has just put back rules that won't let you eat a banana. Now had this been a hundred years earlier you would accept the fact that this had to be the way that it was.

You had to follow these rules lest there be punishment from the gods, but over the last 40 years you've seen ships coming in from England and other parts of the world, and the sailors have not been following kapu and yet nothing has happened... So maybe the gods don't actually care so much about these rules...   maybe they don't even exist? Now there are a lot of different narratives of exactly what happened next, but in October of 1819 just a few months after Liholiho became King Kamehameha II he received a letter from Ka'ahumanu saying we're  done with kapu and you're going to be on board with this. It was an invitation to meet her in Kailua and he kind of had to do it. It took two days to get there during which time it said that he ate and drank alongside the women on the boat   and he did so to excess. Evidently he was quite  drunk by the time they got to Kailua.

"It is thought by some that Liholiho indulged in intoxication in order to fortify himself to violate [kapu]."   And as soon as they arrived everyone on board made sure to tell everyone around that the king had indeed violated kapu. "Hogs and dogs were immediately baked, other provisions were made ready, and chiefs male and female, and Liholiho among the rest sat down and feasted together." When they sat down to eat together on that beach in 1819 it ended kapu, and it began an era of 'ai noa or free eating that we are still in today.

So as that is what is thought of as the first lūʻau I think it's very important that people know that history when they visit a modern lūʻau at a place like the Marriott   or any of the other modern lūʻaus on Hawai'i. Now as I mentioned the term lūʻau actually refers to the leaves or the top of the taro plant, and they were quite important in the cooking of many dishes.   The term even came to refer to entire dishes like  squid lūʻau and chicken lūʻau which are made with squid or chicken, coconut milk and taro leaves. 

so the term lūʻau referred to the food and how it was cooked rather than to the meal itself. One of the earliest written records of the word I could find came in 1840 in a letter to the editor of 'The Polynesian'. Note that because the author was likely being charged by the word or even the letter it reads kind of weird. "Mr. Editor, - sorry you were not present at Picnic given on 12th... Splendid affair. Two long tables set out in a manner that might excite envy in a Apicius. Profusion of every luxury the Islands afford.

Luaued dog included, (numbers by the way, went the whole hog upon this dish.)... Baked dog - thought delicious by some - Governor suspicious of its being a pig in disguise - no mistake though."  First of all, I love that she calls a gourmand an Apicius. You know I'm always a fan of Apicius. Also it's clear that even as late as the 1840s   they were still enjoying baked dog here in the  islands, and it's that dog that is referred to as luaued, it's preparation. It's not the dish itself, it's the preparation like a barbecued pig, this is luaued dog.

And a few years later in 1851 they specify what they mean. "The meats were served after that delicious and peculiarly native fashion Luau-ed (cooked underground with greens)   and was capitally done, in fact the whole received ample justice." So just like the word barbecue today can refer to either the food, or the way that it's made and the meal itself you barbecue, barbecue at a barbecue, that's what happened to the term lūʻau.

So here we are in 1855 and the term lūʻau has come to mean a meal, but it seems that it only refers to the meals or the feasts of the upper class, the Royal family and foreigners  like Americans and English,   and even then only in the English versions of the newspaper. There were also Hawaiian versions but they would continue to use the term ahaaina for quite some time. And even today many people use that term [ahaaina] or pāʻina   instead of lūʻau for their own family gatherings.  But regardless of whichever term was used the events were essentially the same thing although those of the Royal family were much, much larger. In July of 1847 King Kamehameha III held a feast  at his summer home of Kaniakapupu in Oʻahu.

Now with ten thousand guests in attendance there was a lot of food, and luckily they wrote down what they were eating and how much of it they were eating. 2,245 coconuts, 4,000 taro plants, 482 large bowls of poi, 3,125 salted fish and 1,820 fresh fish, 80 bunches of bananas, 12 barrels of laulau, 602 chickens, 55 pineapples, and 271 pigs. Now that is the largest lūʻau I could find but the lūʻaus of the later King David Kalakaua often called the 'Merry Monarch' were more lavish and definitely more numerous. They were often held in the rebuilt Iolani Palace and for his 50th birthday he hosted 1,500 guests who had to be fed in three shifts, and I even found a photo of a smaller lūʻau that he held in 1889 where Robert Louis Stevenson, author of 'Treasure Island', was his guest.

So if the lūʻau is just a meal with a gathering of people when did it become the event that we especially tourists think of today? It's hard to pinpoint but it likely  didn't happen in Hawai'i but in California. In 1933 Don Beach opened Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, and it is considered the first tiki bar where he invented many of the first tiki cocktails, thus kicking off a fascination with tiki culture.   Well in 1946 Don opened his Polynesian Village on  his ranch in Encino California. There he hosted extravagant lūʻaus with Hollywood celebrities as  his guests. They would feature his tiki cocktail, tiki decorations, hula dancers and hapa-haole music. That means half foreign and it was a hybrid between traditional Hawaiian music, lyrics and instruments, and modern American Jazz and pop music.

Well a few years later when Hawai'i became a state  the tourism industry exploded and when mainlanders visited they expected Don Beach's caricaturized  version of the Hawaiian lūʻau, and so that's what resorts gave them, but in recent years while they are still there to entertain they've also started to use the lūʻau as a way to educate the visitors.  The shows include more traditional song, dance, and language,   and I've even found some actual Hawaiian  history make its way into the narrative from time to time, and you know that's something I appreciate.  Now one thing that hasn't changed at all since the lūʻaus of the 1950s and 60s is that you can't go more than a few feet without running into a tiki cocktail, namely the mai tai, and I had a delicious mai tai at the lūʻau where I finally got to enjoy that Kalua pig. So after eight or nine hours Kepanipa'a removed all of the dirt from the imu, uncovered the pig and took it up out of the imu. The meat was literally falling off the bone.   They took it to a table and started to shred it up, and even gave me one of the very first pieces still very very hot off of the pig.

What's really interesting is that all three versions of Kalua pork were unbelievably tender and very, very moist. The flavors were a little bit different based on how they were cooked, some were more smoky. The one that was baked actually in the ground was a little sweeter    but they were all fantastic. What's really interesting is that I was expecting some sort of crackling, kind of a crispy outside of the skin but because it's actually steamed you don't get that everything just is tender and falls off the bone.

So thank you to Chef Ippy, Chef Jason and Kepanipa'a and everyone here at the Marriott for doing all of the cooking for me and letting me taste it, and film here at their beautiful resort, and I will see you next time on Tasting History.

2023-05-06 17:30

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