I recently attended a friend’s first grandson’s baby luau. What’s a baby luau, you ask? The island tradition to throw a party on a child’s first birthday initially started within the Hawaiian community. Back in the day, when childhood mortality wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, reaching the first year was a cause for celebration, as from that point on, the infant had a greater chance of surviving to adulthood. This was especially true in the Hawaiian Islands, where contact with the Western settlers often led to mumps, measles and typhoid fever that the kanaka maoli (Hawaiians) had no immunity to, and being infected with those common Western diseases often meant death for the infected. Since infants rarely develop immunity to any type of infection, they often suffered the greatest consequences. Turning one was indeed an accomplishment worthy of an equally great celebration!
Of course, in this day and age, with the inevitable intertwining of cultural traditions, many ethnicities in the 50th celebrate that first birthday. And with it comes the traditional Hawaiian feast known as the luau, complete with traditional Hawaiian delicacies, though once again, the melding of ethnicities and traditions in modern Hawai‘i means you see a vast array of foods at your usual baby luau.
The Traditional Luau
I know the first image that pops into your head is one of a whole pig cooked in the ground that you either saw on the Travel Channel or the Food Network. Slow cooking a whole hog in that underground oven or imu is based on the traditional method of making that succulent pork dish known as kalua pig. A raging fire is first created. Then, large smooth basalt stones are heated on said fire. Next, a whole splayed hog is simply seasoned with Hawaiian salt (usually air dried coarse sea salt) and is placed in a chicken wire cage, lest any fallin’-off-the-bone morsels get lost in transport (but obviously not traditional in old pre-colonial Hawai‘i). Then, the hog’s placed on split banana tree stalks layered over those blistering hot stones. To facilitate cooking, some of those incendiary stones are also placed in the hog’s cavity. Additional banana tree stalks and leaves are layered over the splayed hog and the whole porky party is covered with burlap (again, not really traditional before Hawaii‘i was annexed), sprayed with water and buried with sand to semi steam, semi smoke said hog for about half a day. The resulting succulent porky flesh rivals anything Memphis in May creates and is true to the authentic Hawaiian luau.
Another traditional dish is known as squid luau, though the “squid” is usually its related cephalopod, the octopus (tako in Japan) or he’e in Hawaiian, which are abundant in Hawaiian waters. Cooked low and slow with chopped taro (kalo in Hawaiian), or luau leaves with salt and coconut milk, the resultant “stew” is rich, salty and satisfying at the same time.
Tying both the pork and luau leaves together is another traditional self-contained meal in itself, the lau-lau or salted coarse chopped pork wrapped in luau leaves, then ti leaves and steamed for several hours to creates a melt-in-the-mouth tender pork with slightly astringent greens akin to cooked spinach, that pairs best with that most maligned Hawaiian starch, poi.
Kalo was the lifeblood of the Hawaiian community, providing the early Hawaiians not just with food, but a spiritual metaphor of the continuity of life itself. The water that kalo was cultivated in also provided another source of sustenance, with the crustaceans and fish that lived in these ponds. The corms or main “root” was the main source of poi, while the stalks gave life to future generations of kalo and the leaves providing the “greens” in lau lau and squid luau. The little baby corms or keiki that sprouted off of the main root provided the metaphysical connection that just like humankind, keiki came from the creator. And for those who still think poi is simply like eating wallpaper paste, I dare you to sample poi in the context of the whole meal. Since refrigeration was almost non-existent in early Hawai‘i, food preservation was accomplished by liberal doses of salt. The neutral taste of poi IS the perfect foil for heavier salted dishes like those found in the 50th.
If that isn’t enough evidence for you, poi is very hypo-allergenic, kind of like the Labradoodle of foods. Children with various food allergies can usually tolerate poi without having any adverse consequences. In fact, this very writer was just a couple of ounces away from life in the incubator postpartum, and as a result of my minuscule birth size, couldn’t feed as robustly as normal newborns. Mom consulted non-traditional medical providers, and they suggested poi. Well, it worked so much so that I was almost granted immediate entry into the makuuchi division of the sumo federation!
Finally, no self-respecting family throws a baby luau without some type of traditional raw or cooked seafood, whether it’s ahi poke (raw cubed tuna mixed with seaweed, onions, green onions and salt), crab poke (split crab served raw spiced with the same seasonings as other poke), tako poke (boiled sliced seasoned octopus), opihi (limpets or small abalone-like shellfish) or all of the above. If you visit the 50th and order this delicacy, it’s pronounced po-keh, not po-key. Po-key is Gumbo’s orange buddy.
The Modern Luau
Along with the usual traditional fare, you’ll also find lomi lomi salmon at most baby luau. While many lifelong residents of the 50th will tell you lomi lomi salmon is a traditional Hawaiian dish, its ingredients suggest otherwise. For example, the namesake salmon or salted salmon used in the dish isn’t even found anywhere near Hawaiian waters. My guess is that Western sailors carried it like salted cod or bacalao due to its almost infinite shelf life, especially in hot, temperate climates. The remaining vegetable matter found in lomi lomi salmon probably arrived with Western settlers, since tomatoes, round onions and green onions aren’t endemic to the 50th. My educated guess is that they were propagated by the Johnny Appleseed of early Hawai‘i, Francisco de Paula Marín, who hailed from the Andalusian region of Spain. He became one of Kamehameha I’s confidants, and is credited with bringing most of the non-endemic flora, especially fruit trees now found in Hawai‘i.
You’ll also find chicken long rice at most luau, and while our fowl friends may have traveled with the earliest settlers of the Hawaiian Islands, I’m certain that long rice wasn’t on that journey. I’m pretty certain that long rice — along with the ginger and maybe even the green onion that’s found in chicken long rice — came over with the Hawai‘i’s original Asian settlers, the Chinese.
At Captain P’s first birthday, we were also served the classic shoyu chicken, which likely has some roots in the Motherland, since it’s usually simmered in shoyu … unless it’s spiced with star anise, which means it’s Chinese … or balanced with vinegar, then it might be Filipino. But then again, that really is Hawai‘i: A perfect blending of cultures and ethnicities and like the traditional dishes, the people make it one big melting pot.
So hauoli la hanau (happy birthday) Captain P! Hope you had a great first birthday and wishing you many more!
Update on Walking the Walk
I started the journey by averaging my weight and body fat over the last several days of 2013. I was approximately 146.4 pounds and 19.4 percent of that was body fat. The goal wasn’t as much to lose weight as it was to reduce body fat. Currently, I’m about one pound less and my body fat is about 19.2 percent, but for all intents and purposes, nothing has changed. Though I have been making an effort to reduce my dinner portions, since my Feb. 6 column, we lost a pharmacist at work, so to assist with the workload, all pharmacists have picked up an extra hour of overtime every day. This means less exercise time. Yes, I’m making excuses again. And just last week, Safeway brought back my favorite potato chips, Cape Cod Reduced Fat, which hasn’t been seen in the islands for several years. I’ve been purchasing and consuming my fair share, less Safeway discontinues the line again. I know, another excuse, though I will focus on getting that additional regimen re-started …
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.