Issue 14.3: June / July 2011

Bundle of Joy

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.’”

 


 

Laulau (literally, "leaf leaf") usually consists of some combination of meat and fish wrapped in the leaf of the kalo (taro) plant. Traditionally it would be buried in an imu, or earth oven, along with hot lava rocks and steamed for several hours. But there are dozens of varations and cooking methods; this laulau at Young's Fish Market in Honolulu includes beef, pork and butterfish on a bed of kalo leaf, also called lu'au leaf.

The classic laulauthe kind you can buy in any Island supermarket or Hawaiian restaurant—is basically this: chunks of fatty meat (pork, usually) and a piece of salt cod (also called “butterfish”) wrapped in kalo (taro) leaves and then tied up in a ti leaf packet and steamed.

 

As with most Island foods, tracing the history of this dish is difficult. Nogelmeier says that “laulau” is an old word, one the Hawaiians brought with them when they emigrated here from points south. Literally, it translates as “leaf leaf.” When, in Hawaiian as in other languages a short word is repeated to form a longer one, it may indicate some special relationship with the object. Other Polynesian cultures have similar dishes, such as the lupulu of Tonga and Samoa, also a dish of wrapped and steamed foods.

 

Technically laulau is not a dish, it’s a tool and a technique: The tool is the ti leaf wrapper, and the technique is placing food inside the wrappers, tying them up and steaming them in a protective covering of banana leaves in an imu (earth oven). With the arrival of new foods following Western contact (beef, for example) and new cooking techniques such as pressurecooking and oven-braising, laulau evolved. But what’s remained constant is the inclusion of lu‘au leaf (kalo leaf ) on the inside and the ti leaf on the outside.

 

There’s no special recipe for laulau, no essential formula. “Uncle” Junior Afalla, 81, of Pearl Highlands, a Filipino-American champion freediver who was a US Army cook for over twenty years, makes his laulau with whatever fish he’s caught lately, turkey tails (for their fat content and economy), Hawaiian salt and corned beef instead of pork. And the cooking methods vary as much as the ingredients. Afalla pressure-cooks his laulau. Some use a rice cooker or bake the laulau in the oven. Chefs use their sous vide machines. The authentic method is to put the bundles in an imu, placing wet banana leaves atop hot stones, arranging the food on the leaves, then burying everything to slowly steam.

 

“Laulau is all about the people, how they prefer it. I don’t eat pork, so I don’t put it in. It’s whatever you want, whatever you have,” said Afalla.

 


 

Bobby Toguchi puts handmade laulau in a pot for steaming at Highway Inn in Waipahu, a family-owned Hawaiian-food institution known for its laulau. After cooking for several hours, the inedible ti leaf wrapper is removed to reveal the fusion of meat, fish and lu'au leaf that's made laulau Hawai'i's comfort food.

While you can’t get much more down-home in the Islands than laulau, it’s also found its way onto the menus of Hawai‘i’s finest restaurants.

 

James Beard Award-winning chef George Mavrothalassitis, a native of France and owner of Chef Mavro restaurant in Honolulu, recalls the first time he tried laulau at Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Kalihi (still a great place for laulau): “I was in Hawai‘i for just a few months. I didn’t know what it was. I loved it. So many different things going on in the dish. I’ll always remember that.”

 

Chef Mavro went on to create his own version of laulau at his restaurant in Honolulu—the freshest “day catch” from the Honolulu Fish Auction (onaga, ‘ehu, ‘opakapaka), Maui onion, ogo (seaweed) and kalo leaf.

 

Award-winning Hawaiian-Chinese chef Alan Wong of Alan Wong’s Restaurant likes his laulau with fiery “chili peppah wattah” and sour poi. But in his restaurant he’s served a deconstructed laulau: layers of kalo leaves baked to form a base for neat squares topped with tender braised pork, “like a filet mignon,” draped in a poi-thickened sauce with a little lomi tomato relish.

 

Chef Ed Kenney of town restaurant recalls fondly a laulau he made once when he had an abundance of lu‘au leaf: lightly smoked brined local pork, house-salted walu fish and sea salt from Hanapepe, Kaua‘i. “Clean, simple and pure,” he says.

 

At the heart of the laulau are two plants whose significance in Hawaiian culture is paramount: kalo and ti. Lu‘au leaf is the leaf of the kalo plant; the food can be wrapped with kalo or the kalo can be placed alongside it. It’s an essential flavor component, though canned spinach will do in a pinch. The kalo plant is so central to Hawaiian culture that Hawaiian origin stories place kalo as the elder brother of man. Both the leaves and the corm (root) were central to the Hawaiian diet, and the plant was intricately woven into every part of Hawaiian culture.

 

Most consider lu‘au leaf the essential laulau ingredient. But chef Alan Wong, who loves local-style laulau, acknowledges that lu‘au leaf has a PR problem. Because the leaves contain needle-like calcium oxalate crystals, they must be cooked for a long time (thirty minutes or more) before they can be safely eaten. The result: An unappetizing, gray-green mush. The taste, familiar to Islanders but strange to novices, is strong and tannic; Wong compares it to green tea.

 

“Just like poi, lu‘au is an acquired taste that many of us grew up with,” says chef Kenney. “It strikes an emotional chord with us. For those who have never tasted it, it can be a bit of a challenge.” Which is among the reasons laulau, unlike some other Hawaiian dishes, has never made a regular appearance on the tables of visitororiented restaurants.

 

The good news, says chef Kenney, is that farmers are now working with new varieties of kalo leaf that don’t require such long cooking times and that retain their vibrant green color. (The other good news is that kalo leaf is wildly healthy, full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Just what you need to offset all that salty pork and fatty fish.)

 

The laulau wrapper is ti, which has a tough, waxy leaf that can withstand high temperatures. In Hawaiian culture, ti leaves were ceremonially and medicinally important, regarded as having protective powers; many Islanders use ti leaves to ward off negative energy by placing them, for example, on their cars to prevent accidents or taking them along when they go to Las Vegas to court good luck at the tables. In laulau, the ti leaves aren’t eaten, but they do add to that indefinable laulau flavor as they steam and char in cooking.

 

For Moana Sullivan, the best part about laulau (other than eating it) is the “reveal,” when you untie the ti leaf wrap and the leaves fall open. “You know, when you unwrap to see what you got ... what’s in it, whether you get the big piece of pork or salt fish. I love that part.”

 

If you’re hosting a lu‘au, laulau are essential: You can’t not have them. And your feast might be judged by the quality of your laulau: Was it fatty, salty, meaty enough? Did it have true laulau flavor?

 

“Good laulau, good party,” says Sullivan. “That’s what my dad used to say.”

 


 

Making laulau There are so many possible ingredients and so many cooking methods that it’s hard to come up with a single laulau recipe. You can do it the laborious, old-fashioned way, by compiling the ingredients in a tied ti leaf bundle, or you can pile them into a baking dish, like a Midwestern “covered dish” (except the covering, in this case, is ti leaves and aluminum foil). However you do it, you need something meaty and/ or starchy (like sweet potato), something fishy or salty (fresh fish and/or salted butterfish or salt pork), something leafy (lu‘au leaf or spinach). Many Islanders make a wikiwiki (quick) laulau with drained canned spinach, which has somewhat the same flavor as cooked kalo leaf.

 

Here’s a short, simple version based on a recipe by longtime Island food writer Muriel Miura. No bundle-tying or imudigging skills required.

 

Baked laulau

 

• Eight to ten ti leaves, washed and ribs removed

 

• Two packages lu‘au (kalo) leaves, washed; stems and fibrous parts removed (If you don’t personally know a kalo farmer, you can find bagged lu‘au leaf in most Island supermarkets and specialty food stores like Tamura’s.)

 

• One pound pork butt, cut into oneinch chunks

 

• One pound salted butterfish, cut into one-inch chunks

 

• Two medium sweet potatoes (purple or yellow), washed and cut into chunks

 

Line a nine-by-thirteen-inch baking dish with foil; lay four to five ti leaves on foil. Arrange half the lu‘au leaves on the ti leaf. Arrange the beef, pork, fish and sweet potatoes evenly around the baking dish. Cover with remaining lu‘au leaves and then with remaining ti leaves. Tightly cover the whole dish with foil, crimping edges to seal. Bake at 350 degrees for three hours.