Updated: September 1, 2023
While the sounds of the ocean create a sense of tranquility, the stunning Oahu sunset makes you ready to embrace the night’s events. Whether on vacation, a Hawaiian luau party is a great way to celebrate the indigenous Native Hawaiian culture while indulging in its distinctive cuisine.
The most important part of planning a luau is the menu. After all, a Hawaiian luau party is a feast.
Hawaiian food delicacies consist of more than fresh pineapple and coconuts. While time-honored foods derive from Native Hawaiian culture, many modern local dishes on the islands have added Asian influences.
Below, we discuss some traditional dishes dating back to ancient times as well as common delicacies that combine tastes from different cultures.
Traditional Hawaiian Lūʻau Food to Serve at Your Next Lūʻau
Authentic Native Hawaiian cuisine is delicious, flavorful, and distinctive. Serving the best classic cuisine is a sure way to make your next Hawaiian luau party the talk of the town.
Below are some common traditional foods to serve if you want an authentically Hawaiian luau.
The Kalua pig is an essential part of any luau menu. However, what makes the Kalua pork so unique is how you cook it.
The term “kalua” refers to the traditional Hawaiian method of cooking meat. This method involves roasting pork in an underground oven called an imu.
The imu is a long-established component of traditional Hawaiian luaus. Not only does it give the meat a distinguished flavor, but it creates a fun way for people to gather together and participate in historic cooking methods.
After cooking a pig in an imu, the pork comes out tender, salty, and savory, a kind of pulled pork. If you don’t have an imu to use for your next Hawaii-themed luau party, you could use a slow cooker as a substitute.
While kalua pork is a standard dish for most Hawaiian luaus today, Native Hawaiians traditionally considered it a delicacy reserved only for special occasions. Fortunately, pork is now a relatively common protein in the islands, making it a part of every Hawaiian feast.
The spread of edibles at a luau can be just as beautiful as it is delicious. Lau Lau is a traditional Hawaiian dish involving meat wrapped in ti and Kalo leaves. Customarily, Hawaiians have used these large leaves to wrap various types of meat, such as fish or pork, then cook them in an imu. When it finishes cooking, you cut the leaves and eat the meat inside.
Steaming the ti leaves gives this dish a unique flavor and provides a fun way to eat. If you manage to get your hands on some ti or Kalo leaves, remember to set them aside, as they are inedible!
Along with roast pig, Poi is another dish traditionally favored by Native Hawaiians, though “dish” may not be the best word to describe this delicacy.
Poi is a sticky, creamy paste made from mashing up taro root (Colocasia Esculenta), which locals call Kalo root: a lavender or purple starchy vegetable. It has a sweet yet sour flavor, due to a natural fermentation. that many foreigners consider an acquired taste. It pairs well with Kalua pig.
What’s a party without something to satisfy your sweet tooth?
Haupia is a Hawaiian dessert made from coconut milk and sugar. Traditionally, Hawaiians prepare it with Polynesian arrowroot, or pia. However, many use cornstarch as a modern substitute.
Haupia has the taste of coconut with a Jello texture, making it one of the best sweet treats to serve. Cut it into squares to make them easier to serve and eat.
Are you looking for more treats to add to the luau menu? Kulolo is another traditional dessert consisting of coconut milk, sugar, and pounded Kalo root.
Like many other traditional Hawaiian dishes, Native Hawaiians make Kulolo by gathering fresh ingredients and wrapping them in ti leaves before cooking them in the imu. While modern Kulolo may not always have raw sugar and fresh Kalo, it is still an excellent way to sweeten your luau menu.
Squid luau is a traditional seafood dish that often resembles creamed spinach. The luau menu item starts with luau leaves, which are the leaves of the taro (Kalo) plant, simmered with Tako (octopus) or squid, sea salt, and coconut milk.
Although these ingredients seem like an unusual combination, they create an authentic Hawaiian dish that will have luau guests coming back for seconds.
For a modern twist, add honey!
Poke is one of the most widely known traditional dishes outside of the Hawaiian Islands. The word “poke” (sounds like poke-ay, not poke-ee) means “to cut crosswise into pieces.” This dicing method was how traditional Hawaiians prepared raw fish.
Although poke restaurants across the United States offer a wide range of menu items with multiple ingredient options, traditional poke encompasses cubed raw ‘ahi tuna mixed with seaweed, soy sauce, and sweet onions.
While traditional poke has only a few ingredients, modern food influences from China and Japan include kimchee, wasabi, and other sushi-related ingredients in today’s poke bowls.
Hawaii did not see cattle until 1793 when George Vancouver introduced island natives to beef. Thanks to Vancouver, beef is now a staple of many Hawaiian foods, including Pipikaula. This distinctive meat snack owes its existence to Hawaiian cowboys (called paniolo) in the late 19th century.
Translated to “beef rope,” Pipikaula consists of short rib (with bone) or flank steak that is salted, seasoned with shoyu (soy sauce), and partially dried, then sliced into finger food. Hawaiians traditionally serve it on the bone to maintain its juiciness.
Other Common Local Hawaiian Foods to Add to Your Lūʻau
Many modern Hawaiian dishes draw inspiration from other cultures. Although these dishes are not traditionally Native Hawaiian, they are an important part of today’s local Hawaiian culture, making them an excellent addition to your next luau.
Lomi Lomi Salmon
According to legend, two New England ships came to Hawaii in the whaling era and introduced salmon. Since that time, salmon has been a special dish for many parties and Hawaiian households.
Lomi Lomi Salmon consists of cold, filleted salted salmon chopped up and marinated with chopped onion, scallions, and tomatoes. This simple yet delicious cold dish is a great way to indulge in local cuisine.
Shoyu chicken is an Asian-inspired dish that Hawaiians have incorporated into their own culture. We can thank Japanese immigrants for this savory dish composed of chicken thighs cooked in shoyu (soy sauce) with sugar, vinegar, garlic, and ginger.
Huli Huli Chicken
In 1955, a former naval intelligence officer who became the head of Pacific Poultry, named Ernest Morgado, performed a mass barbequing of teriyaki-marinated chicken to feed a crowd.
Morgado’s barbequing technique received such acclaim that he registered the trademark of Huli Huli Chicken and began marketing it. The term for “turn” in Hawaiian is “Huli,” hence the name for the enticing dish. since it required frequently turning on the grill.
Generally, Huli Huli chicken marinade consists of soy sauce, brown sugar, ketchup, sherry, ginger, sesame oil, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and Sriracha.
Chicken Long Rice
Chicken long rice is soup-like chicken traditionally served over white rice: a local Chinese-Hawaiian dish dating back to the 19th century.
With chicken and long rice as primary ingredients, seasoning includes garlic, ginger, and onions. Like poke, chicken long rice has multiple variations due to its widespread popularity. Some restaurants serve it with shitake mushrooms or bamboo shoots.
Molokai Sweet Potatoes
The introduction of sweet potatoes to Hawaii remains a mystery, as historians are unsure how it made its way from South America to the islands. Since the plant thrives in dry conditions, Hawaiians often planted sweet potatoes during famines. They used the leaves to create lauhala mats, while the sap offered medicinal benefits for those with insomnia and asthma.
In modern Hawaii, sweet potatoes contribute to many delectable dishes. You can make Molokai sweet potatoes by roasting them, baking them, or adding them to different baked goods. Although most people consider it a side dish, the exquisite flavor and unique purple coloring may tempt you to get a plate full.
Sweet Bread Rolls
Every luau will have its own recipe for sweet rolls. However, Hawaiians get their inspiration for these treats from the Portuguese.
In the 19th century, Portuguese plantation workers brought Pao Doce, spicy sausages, and bean soup to the islands. Pao Doce consists of sugar, yeast, flour, butter, and eggs, creating a fluffy and soft roll with a hint of sweetness.
Hawaiians created variations of the Portuguese recipe, adding lemon peel, pineapple juice, macadamia nut butter, or cinnamon. The bread is a staple at luaus.
Local vs. Traditional: What’s the Difference?
Planning an authentic luau requires careful consideration of food. Contrary to popular belief, traditional Native Hawaiian food differs from the local cuisine (which is the synthesis of many cultures). If you want to throw the luau of the year, especially in Hawaii, it’s crucial to know the difference.
In short, local food refers to food from the state of Hawaii. The term “local” here has geographical significance rather than cultural since it incorporates cultural influences from many sources, as the dishes listed above bear witness. Other common local foods include Shave Ice, Loco Moco, and Saimin.
What makes local food so special is its combination of ethnic flavors as multiple cultures have come together to live in Hawaii. In addition to Japanese and Portuguese influences, other cultures inspiring Hawaiian cooking include Korean, Chinese, and Filipino.
Meanwhile, what Hawaiians call traditional food stems from the indigenous culture of Native Hawaiians.
Traditional Hawaiian dishes bring ancient Native Hawaiian cooking methods and recipes to the modern era, allowing us to participate in this group’s long-established culture and history.
Food for a luau on the islands can consist of a mix of traditional and local food. However, any local Hawaiian will tell you that one of their biggest pet peeves is when people confuse the two. Understanding these differences is the best way to embrace Hawaiian culture while enjoying unparalleled tastes.
Our Final Thoughts on Food at a Lūʻau in Hawaii
From fresh pineapple to salty pork, a traditional luau consists of a wide variety of delicious foods. However, a luau is more than sweet treats and savory dishes.
Traditional luaus consist of wearing the proper attire and gently swinging your hips to the local music. Most hula dancers invite guests on stage to learn the steps, creating a memorable moment for everyone involved.
Hawaiian culture is beautifully unique in its taste. If you want to throw an authentic luau that embraces Hawaiian meal traditions (both local and Native Hawaiian) include dishes like Kalua pork, poke, Haupia, and Poi. However, be sure to also include more recent main dish traditions like Shoyu Chicken and Lomi Lomi Salmon.