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A short history of the Hawaiian Luau

If you’re travelling to Hawaii, in between the beach-hopping, the mountain climbing, the wave surfing and everything else that the beautiful islands have to offer, don’t miss the opportunity to attend a traditional Hawaiian luau. A luau refers to a feast that gathers friends and family together over delicious food, lively music and dancing.

The tradition is over two centuries old and is deeply rooted in Hawaiian and Polynesian history. Keep reading to discover how the Hawaiian luau came to be, why people celebrate them, what they look today and how you can experience this vibrant cultural event with Trafalgar.

How the Hawaiian Luau came to be

The first luau can be dated all the way back to 1819. Prior to the 19th century, religious practices permitted men and women in Hawaii from eating meals together and certain kinds of food were only allowed for men of a particular class. This all changed in 1819 when the leader at the time, King Kamehameha II, abolished the rules.

To commemorate this major societal change, the King hosted a feast in which both men and women could gather and eat together as one. The feast was referred to as ahaaina (meaning gathering meal), paina and luau, but the name luau was the one that stuck. Luau means taro plant, which is a key ingredient in many of the feast’s dishes.


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Traditional luau dishes

The main component of luau is the food, and most of the dishes that were part of the very first luau are still common today. When it comes to the meat dishes, Hawaiians will traditionally serve kalua pig, a shredded pork dish, or laulau, which is meat wrapped in luau and steamed. Kalua pig and laulau are both traditionally prepared in an imu, an underground oven that’s made of hot rocks that’s been used as a culinary tool for centuries.

Poi is a traditional side dish served in luaus that was once considered sacred by Polynesian settlers. It’s made of taro plant root that is mashed into a pudding-like consistency. When served right away it has a sweet taste, but it can also be eaten sour when left for a few days to ferment.

Poke, which is arguably one of the most popular food items to come from Hawaii, is also a key staple in luau. The original poke was made of ahi tuna and seasoned with seaweed and ground kukui nut, but today there are many different iterations of the dish using a variety of types of fish and toppings.

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The luau today

It’s been over two centuries since the first luau took place and they are still being celebrated today. Even though luau are deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture, they have evolved to include food and entertainment of other cultures to more accurately represent Hawaii’s diverse society.

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When there’s a special occasion in the family, such as a wedding, graduation or birthday, friends and family will gather for a luau to celebrate the milestone together. Apart from major events, another reason to host a luau is to welcome guests.

It wasn’t until the 1960s when luaus became a tourist attraction, partly due to the rising popularity of Hawaiian culture, but also because of an increasing number of visitors to the islands.

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Where to experience a luau

Bigger cities and towns in Hawaii hold luaus weekly for tourists to experience the vibrant cultural tradition. With Trafalgar, you can attend a Hawaiian laua on all of our Hawaiian tours — they all include some free time in Maui. Guests can enjoy a traditional luau feast, tropical cocktails, music, singing, dancing (including hula dancing) and storytelling underneath the stars. It will be an unforgettable Hawaiian experience that will be remembered for years to come!

Have you ever attended a Hawaiian luau? Tell us all about your experience in the comments.

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