Words and Phrases You’ll Hear at a Luau
Hawaii is part of the United States, but it can feel like entering a completely different world when you travel here. In addition to the unique climate, the crystal blue waters that only a tropical paradise could have, and the landscape of volcanoes, emerald green landscapes, and towering sea cliffs, when you take part in a luau you’ll hear words that aren’t often used anywhere else in the nation.
That’s because Hawaii had hundreds of years of distinct cultural identity before joining the union. In that time, influences from Pacific Islands thousands of miles away made their way into the island chain. Hawaii might seem like a foreign nation because for most of its history it was a foreign nation! One place this is most evident is at a Hawaiian luau, where you’ll hear words and phrases that were used by Hawaiians dating back centuries, along with others that are Hawaiian pidgin, an mash-up of the languages of the many cultures that made their way to the islands in more recent times.
The luau in its current form began more than 150 years ago, during a time of great change in Hawaiian history. The following are common terms you can expect to hear at a Hawaiian luau.
A common greeting, you can bet you’ll hear a friendly “aloha” when you first arrive. Rather than greeting fellow party-goers with a “hello” at your Hawaiian luau, switch to “Aloha!” Aloha also means love.
Hula is a traditional dance deeply rooted in Polynesian tradition. Dating back to ancient Hawaiians, the dance is used to tell a story, typically the journey of travelers from across the Pacific to the islands. Hula dancing is a staple of the Hawaiian luau and is intricate to the point where every movement has a meaning. The hula is very deliberate, as a different piece of the epic story being told with each hand gesture and swaying of the hips.
The imu is a tradition in just about every luau. It’s an underground oven in which a pig, chicken, or fish and vegetables are cooked over lava rocks lau lau style (see lau lau below). Dug into the earth, the main dish is inserted into the imu and typically covered with banana leaves.
Many elements of the Hawaiian luau of today are based on ancient traditions. Some would even say it’s kahiko, which is the Hawaiian word for traditional or ancient. Kahiko also refers to the style of hula that was common in the days of the Hawaiian Monarchy.
The Hawaiian word for forbidden or sacred. Kapu was a system of rules and restrictions that governed every aspect of Hawaiian life until it was overthrown by King Kamehameha II in the early 19th century, when he shocked Hawaiian society by sitting down to eat with women – an act that made the modern luau possible.
One of the main attractions of the Hawaiian luau is the kau kau, or food. Often served buffet style, there is plenty of kau kau to go around, made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
Most luaus offer their guests a lei (see lei below). Lei are often made from fresh flowers that are strung together using a needle and string. These lei are known as kui lei, with kui referencing the stringing method used.
A traditional Hawaiian dish, lau lau is a staple of the Hawaiian luau. Pork, chicken, and/or fish is wrapped in ti leaves and placed in the imu. It’s a slow-roasted dish that’s incredibly tender and flavorful; a local favorite.
The lei is a garland made from flowers, shells, or nuts and strung into a necklace or headband piece. Lei are a symbol of friendship and love and are a big part of Hawaiian tradition. Beyond luaus, lei are used for celebrations of all kinds, with new graduates often loaded down with so many lei their faces are barely visible. When you’re done with a lei, it’s considered disrespectful to throw it away. Instead, hang it from a tree or bury it, to return it to nature.
As you’re glancing over the spread of menu options, you may see “limu” in some of the dishes. Limu refers to dozens of different species of seaweed that are used in many traditional Hawaiian dishes.
Lomi lomi, meaning “massaged,” is a side dish made from salmon with diced tomatoes and onions.
What is a luau, exactly? Trace the term back far enough and you’ll find that luau was actually a chicken or squid dish made with taro leaves (luau in Hawaiian) and baked in coconut milk. Newspapers from the mid-19th century were the first recorded uses of the world “luau” to mean feast.
Whenever you want to show appreciation for something, instead of saying “thank you,” say “mahalo!” It’s the Hawaiian way of saying thank you.
You may not hear the word “malihini” at a luau, but you would probably be the malihini. In Hawaiian, malihini means “newcomer.”
At a Hawaiian luau, you may find many dishes with “niu” as an ingredient. Don’t get nervous, though. Niu is the Hawaiian word for coconut!
Want to show how much you’re enjoying your luau kau kau? Describe it as “ono,” or delicious.
There are plenty of Hawaiian staples, but poi is one you’ll see at every Hawaiian luau. Poi is made from taro, a common ingredient in many dishes. Taro root is pounded into a mash and water is added to reach the desired consistency. Depending on its thickness, poi can be eaten with one or more fingers.
In the entertainment portion of the evening, a mix of storytelling, music, and dance tells the history of Hawaii. Some of that music will come from a ukulele, a small guitar that you’ve likely seen or heard before. In skilled hands the ukulele produces a relaxing, pleasant sound.