On an overcast day, at the top of a hill in Kaimuki, I went to my first Hawaiian lau lau party.
I met one of the hosts last year attending my first yoga retreat. I think the fact that food dominated most of our conversations gave her the indication that I would be a good candidate for her lau lau assembly line, because the next time she planned her annual party I was on the invite list. An invitation I was quite honored to receive.
In the weeks leading up to an event like this there is preparation that needs to be done on everyone’s part. We were asked to bring ti leaves, pork or fish and a breakfast item or side dish to contribute. Along with that, guests are encouraged to bring alcoholic beverages of their choice. I mean this is a party, first and foremost, after all.
The ingredients that go into the preparation of lau lau are very specific and somewhat time consuming, so our host asked that most of them were prepped before we arrived.
First, you have to have ti leaves. But not just any ti leaves, they can’t be too small and they can’t be too big either.
They also have to be, what the Hawaiians call “de-boned.” You do this by placing the leaf, shiny side down, on a table and making a little nick where the stem first starts to protrude at the top of the leaf. Then you pick up the leaf placing your forefinger behind the leaf, where the back of the stem is, and your thumb in front of the leaf to secure the leaf in place. Then with your other hand you gently peel back the top of the leaf which pops the stem out.
You continue with this motion all the way down, until you have stripped the entire stem from the leaf, but have left the leaf completely still intact. When you reach the bottom of the stem, split the stem in two, all the way up to the base of the leaf. I have to admit, this takes a little finesse.
Here’s an instructional video on how to do this…..
Ti leaves can be found all over the island and are usually foraged in people’s backyards. You can also buy them at flower shops that make leis. These leaves are for wrapping the lau lau, as a vessel to steam them in, they are not edible.
Taro leaves (also called luau leaves)
These can be bought at Wongs in 20 lb bags for I think $38. You can also find them at Foodland or often times at the Farmers Market––Ma’o Farms will sometimes have them in Kaka’ako on Saturdays.
With scissors, snip off the stems and cut the stems into one inch pieces. You will end up with a giant pile of leaves and a large bowl of cut up stems. Wash and dry them well. A group of 6 or 8 of us did this at the party before we started wrapping lau lau. An important note about taro leaves, they must be cooked before eaten. That is unless, you like the sensation of eating broken glass.
Pork shoulder (also called pork butt)
Purchase boneless pork shoulder. Do not remove or discard any fat. The more fat the better in this dish. It is what keeps the lau lau nice and moist and adds flavor. Dice it into one inch cubes.
You need to select fish that has a high oil content. Like the pork, the fattiness of the fish is what makes the lau lau rich and succulent. Although neither local, salmon or black cod (which is actually sable fish, but often called butterfish in Hawaii) are commonly used. We used both.
The salmon needs to be scaled, but you can leave the skin on and the bones in, since they are both delicate and will melt away in the cooking process.
For the black cod, however, the skin and bones should be removed and discarded.
Once your fish has been cleaned, dice it into 1 inch pieces.
Some recipes call for salting the fish ahead of time. We skipped this step and it came out just fine.
You will want to use a course sea salt for this dish, preferably Hawaiian Alaea salt, an unrefined local sea salt that has been mixed with red alae volcanic clay. You can find this on Amazon or in select markets on island (I’ve seen it at Foodland Farms).
I was told that “you cannot use too much salt” in this dish, so have more than you think you will need on hand.
Known on the mainland as mesquite, kiawe lends a nice smoky flavor and aroma to the lau lau when steaming it over an open fire.
This can be sourced by foraging around the island or from a local firewood business like Kiawe Hawaii.
You will need long prep tables, scissors, large steamer pots, cinder blocks (I’ll get to those in a minute), heavy heat-proof gloves and a refrigerator full of beer (to keep you entertained while the lau lau cooks). Tables and industrial sized pots can be purchased at a restaurant supply store like Chef Zone.
The big day
People started trickling into our host’s home around 8am. Coffee was offered, name tags were made, the breakfast buffet started coming together and mimosas were poured.
Around 9am my friend’s husband who co-hosts the party, Lau Lau Luna (luna is Hawaiian for boss), made a lovely toast to the occasion, honoring loved ones that were no longer with us and telling us the story of how he started this annual tradition over twenty years ago.
After diving into a spread of fresh fruit harvested from the backyard, home-made pastries, banana bread, frittatas and quiches, we filed out into the garage to start wrapping lau lau.
The table of ingredients was set up assembly line style, but the process in which we prepared each lau lau was not. Each person was responsible for seeing their lau lau all the way through, beginning to end.
How to build a lau lau
The first thing you do is start with a pile of taro leaves stacked up in one hand. The number of leaves will depend on how big they are. You will want to fan them out and layer them, so that they make a spiral and create a base big enough to enclose a large handful of pork and fish.
Next you go down the line, adding first about 4 or 5 pieces of pork (again, depending on the size), 1-2 pieces of fish, a small handful of taro stems and a liberal sprinkling of sea salt.
Finally, you wrap the whole bundle in ti leaves. You will need two leaves for this. Apparently, there are a couple of different ways you can do this, but here is how we wrapped ours….
First, lay one ti leaf on the table and place your bundle on top of the leaf, at the very top. Roll the bundle up in the leaf until you get almost to the bottom and stop. Lay a second ti leaf on the table, place the bundle on top turning it, so that the open ends are facing the length of the second ti leaf, roll it up until you get almost to the bottom of the leaf and stop. Take the split stems from the first leaf that are now sticking out, and tie a double knot around the pouch.
Secure it again, by then tying it with the split stems from the second leaf.
Here is a demo, from the Lau Lau Luna, on how to do this…
While the majority of the party is in the garage wrapping lau lau, two fires were being built in the yard to create two make-shift wood burning stoves, made out of cinder blocks and grill grates.
When the lau lau were ready, we brought them out to the yard in large coolers and laundry baskets.
Lau Lau Luna and his sous chef, Luna Jr. were in charge of the cooking process. (They wore aprons with their titles sewn into them so we knew who was who.)
Junior carefully stacked each lau lau tightly into two industrial sized pots with steamer baskets counting each one as he went. The pots needed to come to a full boil before the lau lau could be added. Once in, the pots were covered with lids and then weighed down with cinder blocks to keep steam from escaping. A timer was then set for exactly 3 ½ hours.
Now that the lau lau was on and most of the work was complete we had time to hang out, talk story (as the Hawaiians say) and drink beer. Yay!
As the day went on, more side dishes were delivered and prepared. By the time the 3 ½ hours was up we had ourselves a proper luau buffet, complete with chicken long rice, poke, potato-mac salad, poi, fried rice and musubi, along with some other tasty non-traditional salads and a couple of desserts.
It almost brought tears to my eyes when Lau Lau Luna offered me one of the first lau lau to come out of the pot. I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dove in, tasting the first bite unadulterated before adding a splash of Hawaiian chile water on top. It was heavenly.
The taro leaves cooked down and had a reminiscent flavor and texture of canned spinach, that reminded me of my childhood. The fatty pork and fish were tender, juicy and unctuous.
The flavor combination is addictive, and that chile water cuts the fattiness just enough to completely balance them out. It was like snuggling up with a warm fuzzy blanket on a cold day. Something we don’t do often in Hawaii, but you get the idea.
At the end of the event styrofoam boxes were spread out and guests were loaded up with the fruits of their labor to bring home with them. Photos were posted on Instagram and high fives, kisses on the cheek and hugs were given all around.
I was honored and humbled to not only have been so lucky enough to enjoy this feast, but to be accepted into the gathering and appreciated for my efforts as well. It was an experience of true aloha that I will always cherish.
Mahalo nui loa to everyone that was involved.
Especially our hosts, Lau Lau Luna and Luna lady…
Traditional Hawaiian Lau Lau
We made over 200 lau lau at our party. As I don't expect everyone will need that sort of volume I have scaled the recipe down to a more moderate size for a group of a dozen or so people.
- 110 each Ti leaves de-boned
- 5 lbs Taro leaves Stems removed, cut into 1 inch pieces and reserved
- 1 cup Hawaiian Alaea sea salt course
- 10 lbs Pork shoulder boneless, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 4 lbs Salmon and/or black cod diced into 1 inch pieces
- Kiawe wood Chopped to build a fire
See method described above.
Sarah Burchard is the author of The Healthy Locavore, a natural foods chef and experience host whose writing focuses on cooking, holistic health, supporting community and eating locally grown and made foods.