Everyone who comes to Hawaii should experience a luau. They are not really authentic recreations of Hawaiian culture, but they are fun. If you go you can expect a great feast, an open bar, and a wonderful floor show, featuring hula, conch- blowing, chanting, dancing from other parts of Polynesia (men and women), and the grand finale of a fire-dance. But that’s later in the evening, after all guests have filled plates and bellies.
As you enter the luau, you can usually buy a fresh lei. Or consider stopping at a local grocery store, and purchasing one from the flower refrigerator. Someone will guide you to your seat at long tables set up in front of the stage. The entertainment usually starts immediately with a small Hawaiian music combo featuring slack-key guitar and traditional falsetto singing. You may see a demonstration on how to open a coconut, or learn how to hula with a couple of the performers. Do take advantage of as many of the lessons as they offer; they are fun and will enrich your memories of the event.
You will surely be invited to see the pig removed from the ground. Ahh, the pig – it is the best part of the luau feast. The pig has been steaming underground all day over Kiawe wood charcoal and hot rocks. Kiawe trees are members of the mesquite family.
The smoky-flavored, tender, moist, fall-off the bone pork that results from this underground steam cooking method is called kalua pork. I have a hard time resisting kalua pork – even with my flexitarian diet. My mouth waters just writing about it. I can buy pulled pork called kalua pork at the grocery store. It has the same flavor, but it’s not the same texture or degree of moistness. And be forewarned: kalua sandwiches served in diners are often mixed with barbeque sauce. That is more like a traditional pulled pork sandwich from Georgia. You almost have to go to a luau to get the authentic kalua pork, unless you know that some Aunty is bringing it to a potluck.
You can also try lomi salmon, laulau – a dish made with pork and butterfish, and chicken. Starches are sweet potatoes, long rice, potato salad, macaroni salad, and of course, poi, which is typically pounded taro root. Most people don’t like poi because they don’t eat it in the traditional way. Yes, it is bland, but it is not meant to be eaten alone like mashed potatoes. It is eaten along with very spicy foods.
Don’t expect lots of vegetables, though you can load up on fresh fruit: mangos, pineapple, papaya, and oranges. Dessert is usually haupia, an opaque coconut “jello” that Faye finds yummy, and pineapple upside-down cake. The haupia is a traditional food; the cake is not. Personally, I could skip all of it and just eat the pork.
I had a vague understanding of how the pig is cooked. But while we were in Kona for New Year’s Eve, I had the opportunity to see every step, witnessing how hotel staff prepared a pig for that evening’s luau. I got up early New Year’s Day to find coffee and saw the imu pit, the underground oven, lined with rocks and filled with chunks of burning kiawe. The rocks need to be very hot, so this burning/heating process can take three hours. But if you don’t have that kind of time, you improvise. Enter the modern convenience of the gas cylinder. The hotel had to have the pig ready by 6 pm. This was already 8-ish, and the pig is supposed to cook 6-8 hours. Notice how far away the cylinder is sitting from the pit.
On the way back from my morning coffee, I witnessed the main event – putting the pig into the imu oven. I was grateful that I had thought to bring my camera along. By this time, around 9:30, the rocks were hot enough.
The pig was large and the guys preparing it (you’d have to call them the cooks) needed a cart to bring it out. It was a pig alright – head, ears, snout, little hooves, and tail were all intact. To ensure that the pig cooked evenly, the butcher had split it at the legs, gut and behind. I could see coarse salt in the cavities sparkling in the sunlight. Strangely, I didn’t see any flies hovering over the pig. If this had been Wisconsin, they would have been swarming.
Now the cooks poked around the hot pit for the right size and shape rocks, using a very heavy duty long armed tongs. They carefully added the rocks, one by one, to the cavity and leg slits of the pig. The instant the first hot rock touched the flesh, I could hear it sizzle. Smoke started pouring from the cavity. More smoke billowed with each rock that the cooks wedged into place. After a short time, I could smell tantalizing whiffs of cooked pork and I could almost taste that melt-in-my-mouth kalua pork. Just like that, the pig turned into pork in my mind, despite its head and tail clearly in view.
But it’s the steam that cooks the pork. Wet plant material surrounds the pig to create the steam. As the first step in generating this wet environment, the cooks placed banana stalk pieces over the rocks to make the cooking platform for the pig. Good choice!
Banana stalks only produce one hand of bananas, and then need to be cut down to make room for the baby banana plants springing up around it. They are large tree-sized ‘trunks,’ extremely heavy, as they are full of moisture. We’ve tried to drag them around the backyard after chopping them down, but find it’s easier to wait for them to dry out a bit before moving them to the compost heap. So this is a great use for banana stalks. The cooks stacked the stalk pieces a couple layers deep.
Then the cooks strained and heaved the thick wire rack and the heavy pig resting on it, directly onto the banana stalks. These guys repeat this same process at least once a week, and they have their routine down to a science. Still, some parts are more difficult than others.
I didn’t need to take great sniffs to catch the pork aroma now; it was billowing past my nose. A small crowd from the pool area strolled over. They appreciatively observed the process, quiet except for the occasional “umm” and “yum” and click of cameras.
The cooks pulled coarse chopped banana leaves and ti leaves out of a large bag. They threw several layers of the banana leaves on top of the pig, fanning the smoke as the heavy leaves plopped down to make a little tent. The smoke wafted by us, but no one in the attentive audience stepped out of its way. We were mesmerized by the dance unfolding before our eyes, and the smoke curling around us made us part of the experience. Then the cooks carefully arranged the smaller ti leaves along the sides of the pig, several layers deep.
There was an aura of something serious happening, something culturally important. This process has been handed down, from generation to generation for hundreds or even thousands of years. I wonder how long it took to perfect all the steps, to find the right balance among the heat, moisture and time. But that’s just the chemistry. There’s a spiritual aspect too. I wonder if the butcher said a prayer over the pig and asked its permission to kill it. I wonder if these cooks chanted all the important words that link this luau to the ceremonies and feasts of the past. If they did, I didn’t see or hear it. But we feel the linkage, and we clap. They smile shyly. Some of these people will be at the luau this night. Sadly, I have to return home.
When they were satisfied with their handiwork, the cooks stepped out of the oven circle and hosed down a piece of heavy canvas with water. The wet canvas went over the whole thing, again, to add moisture which produces steam. Then they carefully shoveled the dirt that had been in the pit at the beginning, on top of the whole thing for insulation. They had to be careful to not disturb the wet canvas, as they didn’t want to risk dropping dirt onto the pig.
Ceremoniously, they prop some ti leaves on top. Their work is done until the time of the luau.
Then one waits all day for the pig to cook. At a real luau where you are the one cooking the pig (or a lucky guest) this has to be the hardest part – like waiting for Santa to come or for the New Year’s ball to drop. Back home, Dad would sit all day watching his Miami roll cook on a spit on the Weber. But at least he had something to do, like occasionally adding more charcoal, or squirting the flames that were leaping onto the roast. He had to tend his feast.
Here, there’s nothing to check, no adjustments that one can make except for time. I suppose that while you’re passing the time, you can help cook the rest of the food or talk story. Later that evening, when the pork is finally ready, served up on platters in moist smoky-flavored chunks, it will be time for appreciative silence and digging in.
It would be great fun to attend a real local luau. I’ll have to ask the Universe for that. Or maybe I’ll attend a hotel luau with the next guest who comes to visit me. I have such a taste now for kalua pork! Forks up and eat!
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