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A Backyard Luau Brings the Islands Home

I learned about luau at the source.

On my first trip to Hawaii, my sisters, brothers and I feasted under sunset skies at tables long enough to seat dozens. We had kalua pork, a pig roasted whole in an underground oven (imu) for roughly two days; lomi lomi salmon (shredded, salted fish with onions and tomatoes); poi (cooked and pounded taro root); haupia (coconut custard dessert); and mai tais (fruity rum-based drinks).

We were participating in an ancient island tradition of celebration. Auspicious occasions such as a good harvest, the birth of a child or a winning battle were marked by such meals, which by the 19th century were called luau. The word comes from a dish made with young taro leaves.

"With the luau," Hawaiian chef Alan Wong writes in New Wave Luau, "we celebrate the spirit of ohana and family, and mark important passages and events." Ohana is a Hawaiian word referring to family and friends. Today, people throw a luau for graduations, reunions, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries and as housewarming parties.

Any excuse works. So when my neighbors take another Hawaiian golf-and-spa vacation, leaving me to pick up their mail or keep an eye on their house, I find ways to cook luau foods in my own kitchen. I have learned to make kalua pork in a conventional oven in just a few hours. I have tried my hand at lomi lomi salmon.

The luau is my festive default for summer parties. When guests arrive in casual Hawaiian shirts, I can greet them at the door with a floral or shell lei. I set up tiki torches and citronella candles, and play slack key guitar music or classic Don Ho. It all goes well with pitchers of mai tais.

On a buffet table decorated with small tropical plants, I lay out platters of homemade luau dishes. I supplement the oven-roasted pork with grilled chicken teriyaki or kalbi, Korean barbecued ribs, nods to the Aloha State's multicultural influences.

My siblings and I saw the polyglot nature of Hawaiian food in the plate lunches we got from roadside diners and drive-ins. Considered local comfort food, the quick, affordable Hawaiian plate lunch includes generous scoops of white rice and macaroni salad, and a chicken, beef or fish entree.

I sometimes serve poi at a luau. Poi (which means "to pound") is made of steamed and mashed taro root with water added for consistency. It is like a creamy, starchy mixture of potatoes and chestnuts. The purple paste is occasionally left to ferment, giving it a slightly sour flavor. It is an acquired taste.

Other sides and salads and fresh-cut tropical fruits -- guavas, mangos and papayas, for example -- are on my luau menu. For dessert, I make a banana cake or a pineapple upside-down cake, and coconut custard. Or I bake cookies. In Hawaii, we snacked on crisp Kauai Kookies, with varieties such as chocolate chip macadamia and guava macadamia. And any dessert tastes good with a cup of Kona coffee.

By the end of the evening, I have traveled to the islands without leaving my backyard.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Christina Eng
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