With volcanic cliffs as a backdrop and thundering surf nearby, I joined a ragtag group of 50 at a private family celebration in a grassy park on Oahu. Under a canopy, our host uncovered chafing dishes lined up on a buffet table, their steam carried away by the summer trade winds. Our feast began.
I’ve always said that the proof of a truly Hawaiian party is not in the pudding, but in a soupy green dish called squid lū’au. It takes pride of place next to the platter of succulent pig and the calabash of poi. But squid lū’au is hard to find in the islands—a rarity in restaurants and mostly forgotten at luaus aimed at tourists. Yet here it was for me to sample, along with lomilomi salmon, sweet potatoes, chicken long rice, coconut pudding, and spears of fresh pineapple.
The squid lū’au was absolutely divine, with its coconut-milk sweetness, its tender chunks of shellfish, and, especially, the creamy texture of long-cooked taro leaves. As I wandered back for seconds, musicians dressed in scarlet and gold plucked ukuleles and strummed guitars. Our host danced a hula praising a beloved’s “sweet cheeks,” and an auntie taught us how to tell stories with long bamboo rattles.
The party brought to mind the gatherings I experienced as a child in rural Hawaii—entire families would hunt pig, harvest fish, dig a pit in the ground, cook for hours, and start partying. The foods that emerged from the underground oven, or imu, were strongly flavored and peculiar to Polynesia.
We called these feasts “luaus,” a term that emerged in the 19th century and was appropriated by the tourism industry in the 20th. But ancient Hawaiians called them ‘aha’aina, literally “gatherings for food,” and held them to mark a child’s birth or the blessing of a house. Some folks are reviving the term ‘aha’aina, but “luau” has implanted itself in the cultural consciousness.
The Hawaiian word lū’au refers to the leaf tips of taro, a plant with iconic standing in island mythology. The tips look like spinach and are loaded with vitamins. Hawaiians mix them with coconut milk and either chicken or seafood.
If my craving for squid lū‘au was satisfied at the Oahu party, my curiosity about the dish’s revered key ingredient was not. I headed to Kauai, where I had arranged to meet Hawaiians dedicated to giving the taro plant and its precious leaves their due.
One of those was Stella Burgess, manager of Hawaiian culture and community relations at the Grand Hyatt Kauai and Spa.
“Come,” she said, and then led me to the corner of a hidden patio behind the grand ballroom. There, in five-gallon drums, were dozens of taro plants—disparate and thriving. She marched up to one and said, “This is an ali’i,” jerking the distinctive heart-shaped leaves the way a farmer would a chicken’s neck. Ali’i means “royal.” That puzzled me until she pointed to the stems, which were the blood-red color historically associated with Hawaiian chiefs. She turned and singled out another variety. “This one is a manini—you know, the little fish? See the stripes?”
When I asked how to cook the taro, Burgess became reserved. “You cook it the way your family cooks it,” she answered opaquely. “Water, coconut milk, and he’e [octopus].”
The next day, her husband, Kimo, agreed to share his family’s recipe. Though squid lū’au is simple to make, individual families have different preferences and tend to guard them. Some use fresh octopus; others sauté squid in butter and onions. Some sweeten the mix with sugar; some just let the coconut milk do its thing. Some like the dish with lots of sea salt; some prefer garlic.
To really understand the link between taro, squid lū’au, and Hawaiian identity, I next visited Limahuli Garden in Hā’ena, at the end of Kauai’s Kuhio Highway. Its soft-spoken director, ethnobotanist Kāwika Winter, guided me through part of the valley where conservationists are working to restore 1,000 acres of native forests. The wind blew in from the ocean, making the broad leaves of the taro bow atop their slim, chopstick-like stalks. The plant grows in lava-rock terraces carved into a hillside 700 years ago and fed by delicate cascades from Limahuli Stream, one of the last pristine waterways in the islands.
Winter—tall and lanky, with curly, jet-black hair, and dressed in board shorts and flip-flops—described how Polynesians brought with them, in the holds of canoes, a “botanical tool kit” including taro, banana, sweet potato, and cuttings of coconut and banana trees, along with pigs, chickens, and dogs. (Everything else they needed was waiting for them here: seaweed, limpets, sea salt, and fish.)
Taro, Winter explained, was the Hawaiians’ most important crop. He recounted a story about Wākea, the god of the sky: “Wākea’s first son was stillborn. He buried him next to the house. The following day the first taro plant grew from that spot. His second son was born human, and Wākea gave him a name in tribute to the plant: Hāloa, which means ‘stem.’ ”
So, in Hawaiian culture, the older brother takes care of the younger, just as the taro nourishes human beings, and the younger brother respects his elder. The legend captures Hawaiian notions of stewardship—of nature and within the family. “As long as we respect the taro,” Winter said softly, “it will feed us.”
How to Make Squid Lū’au
Adapted from the recipe of the Burgess family of Kōloa, Kaua‘i
2 pounds lū’au (taro) leaves*
16 ounces unsweetened coconut milk
Chopped garlic to taste (optional)
4 cups water
1 1⁄2 pounds fresh octopus or calamari, chopped
1–2 tsp Hawaiian salt (or kosher or rock salt) to taste
1. Prepare lū’au leaves by washing them and peeling them from the stems.
2. Add water to a potful of leaves and bring them to a boil.
3. Boil them for at least six hours, replenishing the water when necessary to keep the leaves covered.**
4. Add the coconut milk.
5. Bring the liquid to a boil, but barely, so the coconut milk doesn’t curdle. (You may want to cover the cooking mixture with a cloth rather than a pot lid to prevent condensed steam from dropping back in.)
6. Add chopped garlic, if desired.
7. Separately, clean and chop the fresh octopus and season it with Hawaiian salt.
8. When thoroughly cooked (“You’ll know they are done,” says Stella Burgess, “when the leaves don’t grab the throat”), ladle the lū‘au mixture into a bowl.
9. Scoop the octopus onto the top and cover the bowl for 30 seconds to one minute, letting the heat of the lū’au slightly cook the octopus.
10. To eat, cut through the layers of octopus and lū’au with a spoon, capturing the coconut milk that has settled to the bottom of the bowl. “That way you get a crunch, a soft, and a sweet—all at once,” Burgess says.
* Frozen taro leaves can be ordered from 1stluau.com. Alternatively, six pounds of spinach can be substituted for two pounds of taro leaves.
**Thorough cooking is necessary to break down the tiny calcium oxalate crystals in the taro leaves, which can irritate your mouth, tongue, and throat. The stems of taro leaves are edible but have an even higher concentration of oxalate crystals.
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