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The Origin of the Luau: Why we love them and where to find the best in O‘ahu

February 21st, 2021 Culture
The Origin of the Luau: Why we love them and where to find the best in O‘ahu

The luau has been an eminent Hawaiian custom for over two centuries. In its most basic form, the luau is a social gathering of friends, family, and community for a night of revelry accompanied by traditional music, exhilarating entertainment, and Polynesian fare. The how, what, and with whom you indulge is as important as where you indulge. Explore a brief history of the luau, traditional luau foods, as well as where to find the best luau in O‘ahu.

Although we strive to provide the most current information, due to COVID-19, attractions mentioned may be closed or cancelled without notice. We recommend checking City and County of Honolulu or State of Hawai‘i mandates and individual websites for operating hours, updates, and social distancing measures before visiting.

A Brief History of the Hawaiian Luau

Prior to the 19th century, the evening feast used to be a more refined religious affair that wasn’t for everyone. Restrictions (namely according to class and gender) were placed on the type of food eaten, and who it was eaten with. But by 1819, King Kamehameha II ended the religious tradition and started eating alongside all participants. After his act, the present-day luau was born, celebrating achievements, war victories, or life events like birthdays, graduations, or weddings. The large and lavish events would range in size, sometimes exceeding a thousand people (King Kamehameha III’s 50th birthday luau in 1847 included more than 1,500 guests!).

Following a spike in Hawaiian tourism in the 1960s, the love of the luau roared back to popularity. Although participating in a public luau today may be far less personal, Hawaiian customs are kept alive through native food and dance like the hula, Samoan fire dance, Tahitian 'ote'a, and Maori haka.


Traditional Hawaiian Luau Food

Originally known as “‘aha‘aina”, or “gathering meal”, the luau featured cuisine like kalua pig (pig roasted in an underground oven), lomi salmon, poi (pounded taro root), and haupia (a dessert referred to as “coconut pudding”). Men and women were required to eat separately during the feast, with commoners and women forbidden to eat delicacies like traditional reef and moi fish, pork, and bananas, which represented things like strength, virtues, or goals. Meals were eaten off lauhala mats, with diners sitting on the floor and using only their hands.

Once the modern luau was established over 200 years ago, the larger scale events began to feature an abundance of food, most notably chicken and taro, or “luau”, baked in coconut milk. Platters of meat like kalua pig, lomi salmon, poi, and poke are commonplace, as well as Hawaiian sweet potatoes, bananas, and haupia.

Best Luau in O‘ahu

Enjoying an evening of authentic cuisine, live music, culture, and dance is on the top of the list for O‘ahu visitors. You’ll find a luau every night of the week, each unique in their own way, but all offering a fun ceremony, fresh flower lei greeting, cocktails, an arrival photo, and a delicious luau menu. Germaine’s Luau, Paradise Cove Luau, and Chief’s Luau are all in Kapolei, located on the western coast of the island, while the Polynesian Cultural Center on the North Shore hosts a luau that is consistently ranked as one of O‘ahu’s best.

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