Food at the core of Hawaiian tradition

Pat Gibbons had been waiting more than 40 years for her second taste of haupia. As the luau began at Hilton Waikoloa Village, she fondly recalled the traditional Hawaiian dish made with coconut milk, gelatin and sugar.

"They would put it in a big pan … and then they would cut it into squares," she said of the dessert she had first enjoyed at a luau at Oahu's Fort DeRussy during husband Pete's shore leave from a Navy submarine.

"They're going to be serving coconut cake tonight, and I don't think we're going to see haupia," she lamented.

"She's been waiting for this all these years, and it's not happening," her husband chimed in with finality.

As soon as the roast pig arrived, the Kennewick, Wash., couple forgot Pat's momentary disappointment. They had risen early that morning to watch as resort employees Herbert Serrao and Stanley Follosco lowered a pig into an imu, a traditional in-the-ground oven.

After coating it with sea salt, the men wrapped the pig in ti leaves.

"We call it Hawaiian aluminum foil," Serrao told a handful of onlookers. "Of course, there are many other uses, like hula skirts."

With mesquite laid under the pig for fuel and lava rocks placed on top for even roasting, the slow process began.

"There's a lot of better ways of cooking, but we try to keep the tradition and the culture," Serrao explained of the manner in which Hawaiians have prepared wild boar for centuries.

Cultural tradition is paramount to scores of luaus throughout the islands. While Polynesian entertainment is an important part of the celebration, food is at its core.

The name luau was coined by accident in the mid-1800s, according to Kawika Freitas, general manager of Old Lahaina Luau on Maui. The confusion stemmed from a party hosted by Hawaiian royalty.

"When they came to the feast, someone asked, 'What is this? What is the gathering?' Someone thought they were pointing at a certain dish."

Thinking the guest was pointing to the leaves of the taro plant, a traditional island vegetable, the answer — as the story goes — was "luau." The name stuck.

Taro continues to play an important role at modern-day feasts. Laulau, salted pork wrapped in taro leaves (luau), is commonly served. After they are cooked, Freitas said, the leaves taste like spinach.

The leaves also are mixed with chunks of taro root and coconut milk to create a traditional salad.

Then there's the ubiquitous poi.

A food staple for many Hawaiians, poi is a bland-tasting mush made by steaming taro root, then mashing it.

"We go along with the jokes when they (visitors) say it tastes like wallpaper paste, (but) we want them to experience what our Hawaiian ancestors ate," Freitas explained. "They ate poi regularly. It's one of the most nutritious starches out there."

Freitas is a stickler when it comes to preserving Hawaiian heritage. That may explain why, in 2013, readers of Hawaii Magazine voted Old Lahaina Luau best in the state.

"When people come to our islands, they want to learn culture. They want to go somewhere where they can experience authentic entertainment," he said.