The concept of the luau began with a feast held by King Kamehameha II of Hawaii in 1819 to symbolize the end of religious taboos connected with dining. These restrictions had included the separation of genders at meals, as well as forbidding certain foods to commoners and all women. Queen Kaahumanu was a strong influence in bringing this change about.
This event changed the language. The name luau originally referred to young tops of the taro plant. But luau came to mean a particular dish that gave the feast its name. In this dish, meat and taro leaves are baked in coconut milk. This wasn't the only word that changed: gathering together for a feast to mark a special occasion — such as births, harvests, and military victories — used to be called ahaaina. Today such a gathering has come to be called a luau.
Royal luaus became a custom and commemorated the celebration of coronations and birthdays. These could be lavish affairs, with vast amounts of food and — at least in one case — guest list of 1500. The traditional luau included a range of Hawaiian dishes, including bowls of poi, a dish made from taro root that has been pounded, sweet potatoes, coconuts, salt and fresh fish, chicken, and pork.
Today, luau feasts are still celebrated by Hawaiians, but in addition, a luau is often considered one of the highlights of a Hawaiian vacation. These are frequently prepared by a commercial organization that specializes in this feast. You can book attendance at a luau as you would for a restaurant or performance, and some luaus last quite a long time, even all day! There are luaus on the various islands hosted by different organizations, and some including transportation, so you may wish to check around before choosing one.
If you go to a luau, you can expect to be greeted with a lei and then enjoy a wide array of delicious food. Luaus feature South Pacific entertainment, which may draw on other Pacific Rim cultures as well as Hawaiian traditions, such as hula. Typical dishes include lomi lomi salmon, poi, kalua pork, luau or lau lau, huli huli Chicken, and sweet potatoes. You may also have the opportunity to participate in Hawaiian arts and crafts and games or see reenactments of Polynesian cultural practices.
The imu is probably the best-known luau feature. It is the pit where the whole pig is cooked. To prepare the imu, the pit is dug and lined with kiawe logs topped with rocks. A fire is lit in the pit, heating the rocks and running the wood to coals. At this point, banana stalks are overlaid on the rocks, followed by banana leaves, on which the pig is placed, with sweet potatoes and lau lau. The food is covered with banana and ti leaves, and wet burlap sacks, and the pit is covered. Six to ten hours later, depending on the pig’s size, the food is ready for the luau feast.