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The History of the Luau

Throughout the world, feasting has been and is a universal form of celebrating happy and important events. However, the Polynesians, and especially Hawaiians, have evolved this great pleasure into a truly unique cultural experience.

Before contact with the western world, Hawaiians called their important feasts an 'aha'aina (‘aha – gathering and ‘aina – meal). These feasts marked special occasions — such as reaching a significant life milestone, victory at war, the launching of a new canoe or a great endeavor. They believed in celebrating these occasions with their friends and families.

Historically, the food and practices observed at an 'aha 'aina were rich with symbolism and the entire event was designed to unite the participants, similar to the way the old Hawaiians braided strands of coconut husk fiber, or sennit, into thicker 'aha cords and rope. Certain foods represented strength while the names or attributes of other foods related to virtues or goals the participants hoped to achieve. There were also certain foods that were off limits to commoners and women. Such delicacies included moi (exquisite tasting near-shore reef fish), pork, and bananas were forbidden to all but the Alii (chiefs of ancient Hawai'i) including the great King Kamehameha. Men and women also ate separately during meals.

In 1819 King Kamehameha II ended traditional religious practices. To celebrate this event he feasted with women to signify major societal changes. Shortly after, the term luau gradually replaced 'aha 'aina. Luau, in Hawaiian is actually the name of the taro leaf, which when young and small is cooked like spinach. The traditional luau was eaten on the floor over lauhala (leaves of the hala tree were weaved together) mats. Luau attendees enjoyed poi (staple of Polynesian food made from the corm of the taro plant), dried fish, and pork cooked in the traditional Hawaiian imu (underground oven), sweet potatoes, bananas and everything was eaten with one’s fingers. Traditional luaus were typically a very large gathering with hundreds and sometimes over a thousand people attending.   

Today, people still get together with families and friends at a luau to celebrate special events. While these private gatherings are private, visitors can enjoy the luau experience at the Alii Luau and it’s unique food including poi, kalua pig, sweet potatoes, rice, lomilomi salmon, and much more. The abundant food served at the Ali'i Luau represents the aloha spirit that brings guests and islanders together in a memorable setting at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Or as "Cousin" Benny Kai, the PCC's "Ambassador of Aloha" says, "Whenever you're at a luau, you are 'ohana — family."

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