The scent of plumeria blossoms mingling with the sweet tang of pineapple; the gentle embrace of the trade winds, palm trees bending in the breeze the seductive aromas of smoky pork as it is pulled from its underground oven: these are the delights of a luau, the most traditional style of entertaining in Hawaii. From backyards throughout the islands to the grand hotels of Kauai, Oahu, Lana’i, Maui and Hawaii Moku, luaus celebrate births, birthdays, graduations, marriages and visits by the thousands of tourists who come from all over the world each year.
While you can’t import the trade winds or plant palm trees where they won’t grow, almost every other element of a luau can be reproduced in your own backyard or dining room. Last June, Chef Alan Wong of Honolulu did just this, at the White House. President Obama, a native of Hawaii, chose Chef Wong, whose restaurants he frequents when he visits his home state, to preside over the first-ever White House luau for the annual Congressional picnic.
The challenges Chef Wong faced are similar to those anyone on the mainland faces, as the Department of Agriculture limits what can be brought in from Hawaii. Chef Wong adapted his signature recipes based on what was at hand and when he was denied permission to dig an imu—the underground fire pit in which traditional kalua pig is cooked—on the White House grounds, he used a conventional indoor oven. It’s just what you should do.
Make it a feast
When staging a luau, let abundance guide you. You want a bountiful table. Even so, bountiful does not equal complicated. Kalua pig, the quintessential luau dish, is simple to make. For a second main course, grill Hawaiian sausages. If you’re a fearless cook, you might add laulau (butterfish and meat wrapped in taro leaves and steamed for hours) or squid luau (slowly simmered taro leaves, squid and coconut milk). You may even pound steamed taro root into velvety poi. But you don’t need to. Keep your menu simple yet abundant and you’ll enjoy your feast as much as your guests. And don’t forget the steamed white rice. As any Hawaiian will tell you, it is absolutely essential. You way want to take a hint from Hawaiian communities, where a luau is often a pot luck. Invite Hawaiians to dinner and they will likely bring a family specialty. To keep your luau traditional, assign easy side dishes—steamed rice, sliced pineapple and papaya, Mac salad—and prepare the main dishes yourself.
Refresh the palate
Careful pairing of beverages makes the difference between a good luau and an extraordinary one. Resist the temptation to serve cocktails like Mai Tais and Blue Hawaiis; while refreshing on a hot day, they won’t take you through a feast. So, too, should you avoid Chardonnnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the most common wines at Hawaii’s resort hotels; though familiar to guests, their flavors and textures are neither flattered by nor flatter traditional Hawaiian foods.
Instead, select sparkling and still wines with good acidity, limited oak, smooth tannins and delicate fruit. A sparkling wine will refresh the palate after the smoky pork, leaving you eager for another succulent bite. A Vinho Verde from Portugal, with its low alcohol and slight effervescence, refreshes the palate in a similar way.
When it comes to still wines, you won’t go wrong with Sauvignon Blanc, especially one with modest fruit and good mineral qualities, characteristics that support rather than eclipse the ahi, the pork and the sausages. But any crisp dry white wine—a Spanish Albariño, an Italian Arneis or an Austrian Grüner Veltliner, for example—will add the bright, refreshing qualities a luau needs. Dry rosé is another excellent option and is probably the best choice if you want to serve a single wine. To celebrate like a Hawaiian, cold beer is your beverage of choice. For kids and teetotalers, have plenty of good root beer on ice. And if coffee is on the menu, make it 100% Kona and serve it chilled over coffee ice cubes.
Until the 1970s, recipes for poke were rare; it was simply something everyone in Hawaii made. Now there are poke cookbooks, including two by Chef Sam Choy of Oahu, whose annual Poke Festivals draw thousands of entries from several countries. This version is traditional, except for the omission of ogo, a brownish red seaweed common in Hawaii but hard to find elsewhere. If you have a source, chop about a half cup into 1-inch pieces and add to the ahi tuna along with the other ingredients.
24 macadamia nuts, shelled (or 12 kukui nuts, also called candle nuts)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch red pepper flakes
2 pounds sashimi-grade ahi tuna, trimmed of any dark flesh and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 green onions, white and green parts, very thinly sliced
5 tablespoons soy sauce, plus more or less to taste
1⁄2 to 3⁄4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Hawaiian alaea salt, lightly crushed, or kosher salt
1 tablespoon inamona*
Make the inamona:* Preheat oven to 225˚F. Roast the macadamia nuts (or candlenuts) for 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer them to a large mortar and crush with a wooden pestle, leaving them somewhat coarse. Add kosher salt and red pepper flakes and stir. Set aside. (You can store the remaining, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.) To assemble the poke: Put the cubed tuna into a medium bowl and add the green onions, soy sauce and red pepper flakes. Toss gently, cover and chill for at least 1 hour. To serve, transfer to a chilled bowl. Sprinkle very lightly with salt, scatter the inamona over the poke and serve. Serves 8 to 10. *Also sold in Hawaiian markets.
Wine recommendations: Ahi, especially raw, is rich and fat on the palate; a sparkling wine cleanses the palate with each sip, leaving it refreshed for the next bite. Try a Spanish Cava such as Cristalino NV Brut Cava, Freixenet Elyssia Gran Cuvee Brut Cava or Iron Horse Vineyards 2005 Brut Rosé. Beer, too, works well, especially a refreshing lager, such as Kona Brewing Company’s Longboard Island Lager.
Kalua pig is perfect for a party, as it takes just minutes of hands-on preparation and is absolutely delicious. Many recipes call for removal of all fat before cooking the pork but this is not a good idea. Fat is essential—it both lubricates and flavors the meat. Most of it is released during cooking and what remains can easily be removed.
Large (about 6 pounds) pork butt (Boston butt) or pork shoulder
4 tablespoons kosher salt
Hawaiian alaea salt
2 limes, cut in wedges, optional
Preheat the oven to 275˚F. (If you have a clay roaster, soak it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.) Set the pork roast on a clean work surface and score the fat layer with deep diagonal cuts about one inch apart; make another row of cuts at right angles to the first cuts. Use a pastry brush to paint the pork with a layer of liquid smoke, making sure to brush into the cuts. Rub salt into the pork, including into the cuts, and be sure to use all of it. Set the pork in a clay roaster or deep roasting pan. Pour about 1⁄4 inch of water into the pan. Cover with the lid or seal tightly with foil. Set in the oven and cook for 5 hours, or until the pork falls apart when pressed. Transfer the pork in its pot to a work surface, leave covered and let rest 15 to 30 minutes. Carefully transfer the pork from the pot to a large serving platter. Use two forks to shred the pork. Sprinkle very lightly with Hawaiian salt, garnish with lime wedges, if using, and serve. Serves 8 to 10.
Wine recommendations: With its rich, voluptuous smokiness, this Kalua Pig recipe needs a beverage with lively acid that won’t turn flabby on the palate; moderate bubbles keep the palate refreshed. For a still wine, try Viu Manent 2009 Colchagua Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Muralhas de Mancoa Vinho Verde, with its low alcohol and hint of effervescence, is also a good choice. If you prefer red, Copeland Creek 2005 Pinot Noir from Sonoma has a light, delicate, ethereal quality that engages beautifully with the pork. Maui Brewing Company’s Bikini Blonde Lager highlights the smoky quality of the meat.
Lomi Lomi Salmon
Traditional Lomi Lomi Salmon is made with salted salmon, which is often an acquired taste, hence the option of smoked salmon, which Chef Beverley Gannon of Maui recommends. She also adds cilantro, which is delicious but not traditional.
21⁄2 pounds wild king salmon fillet, boned and skinned, or smoked wild salmon
Kosher salt or Hawaiian alaea sea salt
2 Maui (or other sweet) onions, diced
4 large tomatoes, preferably a beefsteak variety, peeled and diced
6 green onions, trimmed and cut into very thin rounds
Juice of 1 lime, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro or Italian parsley
Black pepper in a mill
1 lime, cut into wedges
If using fresh salmon, season it generously with salt. Set on a plate, cover lightly with foil or wax paper and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.
Remove the salmon from the refrigerator, rinse under cool water, pat dry with a clean tea towel and cut into small dice. (If using smoked sample, simply dice or crumble it into small pieces.) Put the salmon into a serving bowl, add the onions, tomatoes and green onions and toss gently. Add the lime juice and cilantro or parsley, season with black pepper and toss again. Taste and correct with salt and pepper.
Garnish with lime wedges and serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 hours. Serves 8 to 10.
Wine recommendations: It’s more than color coordination, it’s flavor and texture compatibility. The beautiful citrus notes in Baker Lane 2009 Rosé of Syrah from Sonoma resonate with the tomatoes and makes the salmon blossom. Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé and Sierra Nevada Summerfest Pilsner engage the tomatoes well, too.
Hawaiian food is typically mild, though chili water, often offered alongside, allows you to spike your kalua pig, white rice or even poi with a bit of heat.
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 garlic clove, crushed
6 to 8 small hot chili peppers, such as Thai
Put a 16-ounce glass bottle into boiling water and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, cool slightly and use tongs to transfer to a work surface. Put the salt, vinegar and chilies into the bottle and fill with tap water, spring water or filtered water. Add the bottle’s lid, shake and set aside for 2 days so that flavors blossom. Use as a condiment with kalua pig, roasted sweet potatoes, poi and rice. Makes 2 cups.
Haupia (Coconut Pudding)
This pudding is served at every luau; it also comes with most plate lunches. Using this pudding to top a slice of cheesecake is a specialty
6 tablespoons cornstarch
3 cups canned coconut milk
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
Put the cornstarch in a small bowl, add 1⁄4 cup water and mix to form a thick paste. Set aside.Pour the coconut milk into a medium saucepan and whisk until smooth; add the sugar and 2 or 3 pinches of salt and whisk again. Set over low heat and continue to whisk. When it barely begins to simmer, slowly whisk in the cornstarch and continue to stir until the mixture begins to simmer again. Simmer gently for 2 minutes and remove from the heat. Pour into an 8-inch square cake pan, cover tightly and chill for at least 3 hours.To serve, cut into 16 squares and serve alongside fresh fruit. Makes 16 servings.
Wine recommendations: This late in the feast, serve iced Kona coffee or keep the party going with Gloria Ferrer 2005 Blanc de Blancs.
The more elements of Hawaiian culture you add to your luau, the more you evoke the islands. Leis, music and hula dancers are among the easiest elements to include. Many outstanding lei makers ship to the mainland, among them Molokai Plumeria Farm ; Gecko Farms, which posts instructions for making your own “emergency leis” on their Web site, geckofarms.com; and Milan’s Enterprise, operated by Myrna Milan, who has two shops in Honolulu (877.838.2822).
For traditional music, go to mele.com. If you are unfamiliar with the genre, consider the Aloha Festival Falsetto Contest Winners CDs; there are several volumes, all excellent. In California’s wine country, Faith Ako of Sonoma County (faithako.com) has made a name for herself with traditional and original music.
For hula dancers, mele.com is the best source; it lists halau hula (hula schools) in nearly every state as well as Washington D.C. Look under “resources” to find the halau nearest you; when you call be ready to provide details about how much space is available and how long a performance you would like. Costs range from nothing (dancers want to dance) to several hundred dollars.
For an abundant, traditional and luscious feast, add these dishes, so simple that they do not need recipes, to your luau table.
Grilled Hawaiian Sausages; Garnet Yams, peeled and roasted in the oven; Mac Salad (macaroni, onion, black olives, Italian parsley and lots of mayonnaise); Steamed Jasmine Rice; Sliced Pineapple and Papaya; Green Tea, Mango or Passion Fruit Sorbet, Gelato or Ice Cream.
Aloha, Mahalo, Pau
Aloha is both the greeting and the classic farewell of Hawaii. When you welcome guests, slip flower leis over their heads, say aloha and plant a light kiss on both cheeks. It is the island way. Send your guests off at the end of the evening with another aloha, to which they may respond mahalo, Hawaiian for thank you. And then, you’re pau. Done. Finished. Complete.