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Flavors of Hawaii Celebrated at the White House

Chef Alan Wong creates a modern luau for Congressional picnic

By Holly Hadsell and SYT Staff

Being from Hawaii, President Obama knows the gesture of inviting someone to a luau is more than an invitation to a party, it’s an invitation to celebrate community and family.

While those outside Hawaii might think of a luau as an excuse to sip neon colored drinks and wear loud aloha shirts, here in the Islands a luau is a time to connect with loved ones and rejoice in the bounty and tastes of our rich heritage.

Whether in D.C. or Hawaii, the essence of a luau is about bringing people together. The White House gathering will be prepared by Hawaii Chef Alan Wong whose namesake Honolulu restaurant is a favorite of the President and Mrs. Obama. The luau will be a chance for Capitol Hill to sample modern Hawaii cuisine  as interpreted by Chef Wong. Wong's signature style of cooking brings together European technique  - a nod to his many years spent at Lutece under the legendary Andre Soltner, traditional Hawaiian food traditions and Asian flavors that reflect Hawaii's plantation heritage. Modern Hawaii cuisine is a perfect complement to an Adminstration that prides itself on diversity.

A long time champion of Hawaii farmers and products, Chef Wong saw this invitation as an opportunity to showcase Island-grown foods.  Some of the products being served at the luau are Wailea Agriculture hearts of palm, Waialua Estate chocolate, chevre from Hawaii Island Goat Dairy and more than 200 pounds of mushrooms from Hamakua Mushrooms. Wong had an even longer wish list of products he wanted to bring with him, but security, budget and availability issues curtailed his original list.

Chef Wong with Mike Conway at Waialua Chocolate orchard

This hasn’t dampened Wong and his staff’s commitment to bring a delicious sampling of Hawaii to the White House. Arriving in D.C. late Monday night, they have been working round the clock to prepare for today’s luau.


What is a Luau?

A feast and celebration of community and aloha

A luau, originally called aha aina by ancient Hawaiians, was a feast to celebrate a milestone of one’s life such as a birth. Luau is the leaf of the taro plant and is used in many of the preparations of  traditional Hawaiian foods. At the  turn of the century typical luaus where eaten on the ground on top of lauhala (woven palm fronds) mats covered with pork, fish, fruits, vegetables and strewn with tropical flowers. Hula was also an important part of a luau celebration.

The contemporary luau of today are held for celebrations—a baby’s first birthday, graduation, church fundraisers and reunions. Families get together and contribute to the feast. An auntie will make the lomi lomi salmon, an uncle will go fishing and catch some ahi for the poke. Families will gather to dig the imu, an underground oven which is filled with lava rocks and banana tree stalks. An entire pig is roasted for hours until it is tender and can be shredded easily.

The best way to experience a luau is to come to Hawaii, and get invited by a family to one of their celebrations. Second best? Attend one of the commercial luaus!  Many of them are excellent and a lot of fun. Visit Hawaii's tourism website for a listing of luaus on several of the islands.

Traditional luau fare

kalua pig: traditionally cooked in the imu, with hot lava rocks and banana tree stalks

Laulaulau lau: salted fish and pork wrapped in luau and ti leaves and steamed

lomi lomi salmon: salted salmon diced and served with diced tomatoes, white and green onions

poi: mashed taro, a root vegetable and staple of Hawaiian food

sweet potato: steamed or cooked in the imu

squid luau: squid cooked in coconut milk and luau leaf

chicken long rice: chicken cooked with rice noodles (probably Chinese influence)

opihi: limpets, collected from the rocky cliffs of the oceanPoke_opihi

poke: raw fish chopped and mixed with limu (seaweed) or roasted kukui nuts

chili pepper water: a condiment made of Hawaiian chili peppers, vinegar, and water

kulolo: taro pudding steamed with coconut milk

haupia: coconut pudding



Our Top Pick for Hawaiian Food, also a Favorite of Hawaii Chefs!

The second best place to get Hawaiian food, after a luau, is Helena's Hawaiian Food. With a James Beard Award for Regional Classics, it's a down-home restaurant that serves traditional Hawaiian fare. It's one of the few restaurants in Hawaii where you can still get opihi. For a video and story, see past features:

Picture 2 Picture 3

Cookbooks for luau recipes and ideas


Alan Wong’s New Wave Luau

by Alan Wong

Sam Choy’s Island Flavors

by Sam Choy

The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage

by Rachel Laudan

Comments from Readers

  1. 39048be71cd3b1982f18cc3cc30e1b3c
    Michael Conway on 6/26/2009 at 12:38pm

    I'm the guy in the picture above with Chef Wong. Apparently our Hawaiian grown chocolate was used at the dessert table. Besides being amongst the rarest chocolates in the world, its' the only cacao grown in the U.S. with very limited production. Just wondered if you had any feedback from the guests.


  2. 51dee7bc7c88213e840d5dc4ee099e34
    Orrel on 8/21/2009 at 10:53am

    Neighbors on my street, from here in the Bay Area, had just returned from Oahu. They stopped me in Trader Joes, Rockridge, Calif, upon seeing me shopping clad in my Waialua Sugar Mill shirt. They told me that while in Waialua, a really nice and very informative guy named Derek saw them at the Mill and took them for a personal tour of the coffee and chocolate production. It was one of the highlights of their very first trip to the islands. They came back with a profound new appreciation of coffee and chocolate. Another 6 degrees of separation moment.

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