|Story by Wanda A. Adams
Photos by Linda Ching
Here’s everything you need to know about laulau: It is to Islanders what barbecue is to Southerners, what lutefisk and lefse are to Midwesterners, what latkes are to Jews— the food of home and life and soul. It’s a thing so common and known and dear to Hawai‘i’s people that everyone who makes it has his or her way with it, their favorite ingredients and techniques.
“You know, in Hawai‘i, we are like laulau,” says Moana Sullivan, a Maui resident who loves to cook and grew up in a big Hawaiian family. “Mixed-up, rich and salty and all kine things.”
Thirty years ago Hawaiian-language scholar Puakea Nogelmeier, a Mainland expat, had just arrived in Hawai‘i from Minnesota. Through friends he met in the surfing and hula worlds, he’d found his way to the backyard of one of Hawai‘i’s great musicians, the late Gabby “Pops” Pahinui. Pops is now legendary for hosting regular kani ka pila, or music jams, at his Waimanalo home; Hawaiian musicians from all over O‘ahu would gather to play all night — sometimes all weekend—long. And wherever Hawaiians gather for a weekend, you know there’s going to be Hawaiian food: lomi salmon, poi, squid lu‘au, haupia, chicken long rice and always, always laulau. “I didn’t know nothin’,” Nogelmeier recalls of his first encounter with the package of pleasure that is laulau. “I kept asking, ‘What is this? It’s got everything.’ It had fish, it had pork, it had flavor. It had everything a guy could want. ‘Whatever this is, it’s like food of the gods.’”