Behind the Scenes Pt. 1
BEHIND THE SCENES AT A KAUAI LUAU, PART 1: GOOD DRINKS & GREAT FOOD.
When planning to attend a luau in Kauai, one of the things visitors look forward to most is enjoying great food and drinks. At their heart, Hawaiian luaus are feasts. When booking tickets to the luau Kalamaku, we anticipate fresh pineapple and seared fish and all kinds of island-flavored delights. Two things guests at a Hawaii luau can count on tasting are fruity, refreshing Mai Tais and succulent Kalua pork. We all know luaus don’t just appear – someone lays out the tables, plans the entertainment, and lights the tiki torches as the sun goes down. The behind the scenes preparation of luau cuisine has many different elements, and two of the most essential are the making of the perfect Mai Tai and the preparation of the traditional luau dish of Kalua pig.
Maita’i is the Tahitian word for “good”, and that is exactly how arriving Kauai luau guests want their Mai Tais to taste. The Mai Tai that is so popular at modern Hawaii luau was invented at Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California in 1933. After being featured in Elvis Presley’s hit film Blue Hawaii, the Mai Tai was forever connected to the glamorous Hawaii luau culture born in that time period. There are many different opinions about what constitutes a “true” Mai Tai. Many consider a “real” Mai Tai to be only one made with Trader Vic’s original recipe. However, the most important thing about a Mai Tai being served at a Kauai luau is that it tastes great. An important part of the behind the scenes preparation for a Kauai luau is the creation of the perfect Mai Tai. So if you find yourself bartending a Hawaiian luau someday, what exactly will you need to do before your guests arrive to be ready to put a delicious island drink in their hands? The luau Kalamaku has some of the best island drinks Kauai offers.
The first thing a Kauai luau bartender wants to do is check the rum supply – rum is a key ingredient in a Mai Tai. Trader Vic’s original recipe suggests specific aged rum, but most luaus stock the bar with good quality light and dark rum. The next step in preparing to “wow” everyone’s taste buds at the best luau Kauai is to make sure you have the right liqueurs and syrups on hand – they are a key ingredient in achieving a Mai Tai’s tropical flavor. Different recipes will suggest stocking the bar at a Kalamaku luau with different varieties of these syrups, but most Mai Tai experts will encourage luau bartenders to have orange Curacao and orgeat syrup on hand. Last but definitely not least, the person mixing the drinks behind the bar at a Kauai luau will want to be sure there is plenty of fresh pineapple and orange juice ready to go. The addition of fresh juices gives Mai Tais the tropical flavor that reminds guests they are at a Hawaii luau.
Now that you are prepared to serve your Kauai luau guests the perfect tropical drink, its time to get ready to dish up the Hawaii luau cuisine the islands are famous for. Tender Kalua pig is arguably the best tasting, best-known dish served at a Hawaii luau. The amazing, cooked-to-perfection taste of this luau staple is no accident. A true Kalua pig is cooked in an underground imu oven, and the preparation of an authentic Hawaiian imu is a tradition even older than the luau. In fact, the behind the scenes preparation involved in constructing a working imu oven is so painstaking and time consuming that they are only used to prepare meals for large Hawaii luau style feasts. Of course, many of the larger, long-running Kauai luaus will re-use the same carefully built imu again, but some steps of the process will need to be done each time a pig is cooked for a luau in Kauai. So if you find yourself on the Kauai luau crew responsible for building the imu oven and cooking the Kalua pig, what exactly will your behind the scenes preparations include?
Your first step in preparing to cook the perfect pig is easy – dig a hole in the ground, preferably in a spot where your luau Kalamaku guests can watch the unearthing of the cooked pig. The size of the pit depends on how many luau guests you are expecting, but most Hawaii luau pigs are cooked in holes about two to four feet deep with rounded, sloping sides. Remember, the pit at a Kauai luau has to hold a lot more than the pig – it also has to contain the wood, stones, and layers of banana and ti leaves needed to cook it. Preparing the imu oven to be used at a Hawaii luau is all about the layers. The bottom layer is wood, which is used to start the fire that will heat the stones placed just above the kindling. When placing the layer of stones, the best stones to use are dry and porous. Damp stones have been known to explode inside the imu, giving Kauai luau guests an unwelcome surprise. It takes about three hours for the stones to reach the right temperature, so the timing of behind the scenes preparation truly is crucial for that tender Kalua pig so many Hawaii luau guests love. Once the stones have reached their perfect cooking temperature, they are leveled out with wooden tongs to create the platform the Kalua pig will be placed on.
At this point, your background preparations to create the perfect Kalua pork for your Kauai luau guests are almost complete. Now that the imu is all fired up, you are ready to add two layers of carefully selected vegetation. That’s right – part of your Hawaii luau preparation is to gather honohono grass, ti leaves, banana leaves, and coconut palm leaves. Hawaiians preparing the traditional imu before a luau feast referred to this plant matter as hali’i. The hali’i is layered over the hot stones, with special attention paid to the top layer since it will touch the pig and give it some of the flavor your Kauai luau guests will be coming to enjoy. The pig itself is then rubbed inside and out with rock salt, and its empty belly filled with more stones. They will heat during cooking to be sure the pig is cooked thoroughly, something your Hawaii luau guests will appreciate. Now place the pig over the hali’i and cover it with yet another layer of ti or banana leaves. You are almost ready to leave your completed imu oven behind for a few hours and get on with the rest of your Kauai luau preparations. The last steps are to cover all the layers of wood rocks, pig, and leaves with a secure piece of cloth – traditionally worn tapa or bark cloth – so that no dirt touches the pig to be served at the Hawaii luau. The entire imu is then filled back in with dirt and left to cook for the next several hours while the rest of the Kauai luau is put together.
Not all modern best luaus on Kauai utilize this time-consuming traditional method of cooking the Kalua pig. Even if the Hawaii luau you are attending does not include an imu ceremony where the cooked pig is removed in front of the luau crowd, it can still feature excellent tasting Kalua pig. Some Kauai luaus use regular ovens and cook with special recipes designed to give the luau pig a traditional flavor, and it works! Other Hawaii luaus cook with the imu pao, which is an aboveground imu that features an opening where the wood can be stoked in the style of a traditional wood oven. All these styles of cooking the Kalua pig for a Hawaii luau require behind-the-scenes preparation of varying degrees, and all ensure the quality food Kauai luau guests expect. However, if you are attending a Kauai luau and are fascinated by the imu oven tradition of ancient Hawaii, call the luau experts at Boss Frog’s and let them know you are looking for a Hawaii luau that includes an imu ceremony so they can point you in the right direction. Consider it your own “behind-the-scenes” preparation for a great Kauai luau experience!