The Summer Luau. Nothing conjures images of Hawaiian summer nights like a Tiki Torch-lit evening of grass skirts, exotic foods and wild drums. Although most people won’t want to go through the expense and trouble of roasting a pig and hiring authentic Hula dancers, for a much smaller budget you can have all the fun…or even more…in your own back yard.
Having a backyard Luau can be as easy as visiting your local party store, barbecuing some chicken, and lighting some torches. Here’s a guide to follow to make it easy and fun without spending a fortune.
There are five basic elements to making any party a success: The décor, the food, the drinks, the entertainment, and the people. Get the right combination and you’ll have a party people will talk about for months. I’ll show you how to get the first four…the guests are up to you!
Probably the most important (and most fun) part of a Luau is the décor. The key is kitsch. Half the fun of living the Tiki life is that you can be as wild, goofy, and kitschy as you want. You don’t have to worry about impressing anyone with expensive food spreads and original décor. All you need is a little time, a few bucks, and a great imagination. If you have a decorating budget under $50, you’ll have to make some things yourself. If you can lay down about $75 to $100, you can get pretty much everything you need at a party supply store like Party City. (If there isn’t one in your area, plan ahead and order your decorations online at http://partycity.com or at PartyAmerica.com). They have printed cups, paper plates, napkins, table covers, etc. in several different Tiki and luau themes. You can save money by purchasing printed plates, but solid-color orange, green or blue napkins and cups. If you expect a lot of people, you can mix and match the printed tableware with colorful, less expensive stuff. Colorful plasticware is nice too…but go with the cheapest, it’s getting thrown out anyway.
Any table can be turned into a Tiki Table with a colorful table cover and a “grass” skirt. You’ll find a choice of real grass or plastic table skirts will run about $10 to $20 each. The plastic ones come in different styles and colors and will make a less authentic but more festive look. Candles molded in the shapes of Tiki idols, coconuts, pineapples and other fruits can be used as simple decorations on tables. Party stores also carry a variety of pop-up table centerpieces, hanging décor and confetti to top things off. Orange and green crepe streamers are cheap and can add an extra flair to tables and chairs, as well as walls and windows.
No luau is complete without Tiki Torches. One every eight feet will provide plenty of light for you party. Make sure you buy enough cintronella to fill them. Torches usually hold around 10 ounces of fluid, and will burn for 3 to 6 hours.
Paper cut outs of Tiki Idols, Hawaiian girls in grass skirts, and Luau signs can be purchased and placed around the party area. Some party stores even have extravagant entranceways and signage for reasonable prices. (These are some of the things you can make yourself using posterboard and colored markers, great if want the kids to get involved.) For larger decorations, inflatable palm trees and Tikis are great. Also, there are products called “Scene Setters” which are basically plastic sheets printed with different themes – palm trees, hula girls, and beach scenes to name a few. You can also buy a box of 50 Hawaiian leis for under $15…put them on your guests, hang them anywhere as décor!
To really top things off, use tropical plants and flowers. Yes, these can get expensive, especially if you need a lot of them. A few palm plants from home depot (around $8 to $15 each) can do wonders. Ask your friends of they have any potted palms or other flowers they can lend you for the day. Also, if you’re going to do this party a few times a year, you might consider plastic plants and flowers to reuse. When all else fails, you can make paper cut-outs of the palms and palm leaves using green posterboard. After all, the décor is really like a stage set…just to set the mood.
Anything you like can be made into luau food by adding pineapple to it. There, that’s the secret. Want burgers? Add a pineapple ring and BAM! Tahitian Burger!
If you want to go a little further, there are easy and fun ways to make food for the luau. First and foremost, it should be a Barbecue. If you have the ability to have an open pit, that’s even better. Invest in a bag of hickory wood chips and soak them for an hour before cooking, then add them wet to the fire. It will not only flavor the food, the whole neighborhood will appreciate the aroma.
The traditional all-American 1950’s style luau menu usually consists of pork, chicken, fish and vegetables, marinated in sweet sauces and grilled straight-up or skewered. (see the end of this post for a few recipes) Side dishes and appetizers can be anything from iced shrimp to rice pilaf, mandarin orange salad to chicken wings. Here’s a list of foods for a retro luau of 15 to 20 people:
- Grilled thin-sliced chicken breast on a stick, marinaded with Hawaiian or Teriyaki marinade
- Pork roast or ham, smoked over the fire until hot, served with sweet pineapple dipping sauce
- Iced shrimp
- Fruit cocktail
- Wild rice
- Mandarin orange salad made with assorted greens and choice of ginger or honey dressing
- Orange and lime Jello
- Spring rolls
- Fresh coconut, pineapple, oranges, and kiwi
- Pineapple cheesecake for dessert
- Assorted nuts, chips, dried fruits, pretzels and chocolates
This is the type of food they served in the old days. If you’re more into modern cooking, devise your own menu combining Chinese, Hawaiian and other ethnic styles to create the perfect feast for you guests.
And now we come to my favorite part, the drinks. A Luau just ain’t a Luau without a Tiki Bar. If you don’t have one, see my article on building your own Tiki Bar Cheap (go right to the section about setting up a temporary bar for a party). Choose a few traditional drinks ahead of time as your features, and have the ingredients ready for them. Remember, most people will ask for their ‘usual’ drinks…try to get them to try something new. Make sure you have plenty of cups and plenty of ice. (See my post on “How to Have the Perfect Atomic Age Cocktail Party” for more info on how to set up your bar)
Great Drinks for a Luau include:
- Mai Tai
- Banana Banshee
- Singapore Sling
- Rum Runner
- Blue Hawaiian
- Pina Colada
- Planter’s Punch
- Black Magic
- Bora Bora
You can find recipes for these by googling them. Some of these are a little hard to make, so a pitcher of frozen strawberry daiquiris and a pitcher of frozen piña coladas will probably get you through the night without breaking the bank on a case of booze. Plus, any drink can be made to look exotic by adding some fruit garnish and a little paper umbrella. Want to really sizzle things up? Serve your cocktails with a lit sparkler in it…just make sure you don’t burn anyone. (Probably a good idea to stop doing this after the third drink)
Remember, most of these can be made ‘virgin’ for the kids, so let them have some fun too!
Colored Ice Cubes – something you don’t see often, and they get lost unless you’re serving clear drinks in clear cups…make ice cubes ahead of time adding a drop of red, green or blue food coloring to each. Looks great in an ice bucket!
Live Hula dancers, fire eaters, drums and steel guitars. You’re probably not going to have any of these at your backyard soiree…if you are, great! If not, and you’re like the rest of us, a couple of CD’s of proper music will have to do. You can go in a few directions here. For background music early in the party, I’d suggest something like Steel Guitar Magic – Hawaiian Style by the All Star Hawaiian Band. It’s the typical kind of twangy, lilting music you’d expect to hear on Fantasy Island. You can mix it up a little with some cuts from Martin Denny and Les Baxter (see my page on Tiki Bar Music Exotica). Later in the evening when people want to dance, you’ll probably have to abandon your authentic melodies for the pop music of choice. Just make sure you include the Limbo Hop, so you can have a Limbo contest. Any stick will do, but you can buy bamboo sticks at the party store to make it more islandy.
If you’re not shy, you can watch video of Hawaiian dancers and choreograph your own Hula show with your friends. Grass skirts are usually under $10, and can be worn by both men and women. (Depending on the type of people you’re having at the party, it’s probably wise to not go with the traditional luau dress for women, which is a grass skirt…only.) Make it funny, make it kind of silly. Dance to Don Ho if you can find the music. Make your show more impressive by dancing with flaming torches. Just don’t set each other on fire. If someone has some bongos or a conga drum, add that to the mix. Add some party games of choice, and you’re good to go.
What makes any party a success is the right mix of people. A Luau can be adults only, with more emphasis on the drinks and food, or family and kid oriented, with emphasis on games, music and even helping out with the décor (kids are a great source of cheap labor when it comes to decorating for a party).
Invitations should be sent at least three weeks in advance so people have time to make arrangements. These days online invitations are a fast and easy way to get the word out, but to go retro you need to use paper and snail mail. People still love getting invites in the mail anyway, so make them good. You can make your own, or buy pre-printed invites online or at the party store. Include information on your menu, the featured drinks, whether it’s for adults only or families, and what (if anything) people should bring. And most importantly…give them the dress code rules. This is a Luau, and you want people to be in the spirit of Tiki! Hawaiian shirts, sandals, beachwear, sun dresses, or even grass skirts are appropriate. Evening gowns and blue jeans are not. Since your party is going to be outside, tell people to dress accordingly.
The coals are afire. The Tiki torches are burning. “Blue Hawaii” comes lilting through the air. Tropical plants adorn your buffet tables topped with salads, chips, and fruits. The aroma of hickory smoke and Teriyaki fill the air. Your back yard looks like a South Pacific beach circa 1950. Mix yourself Singapore Sling, and answer the door…your first guests have arrived!
Simple BBQ Recipes for your Luau
Chicken Skewers – Cut boneless, skinless chicken breasts into 2″ cubes. Marinate for several hours in Hawaiian marinade. (Discard used marinade) On skewers, place a wide slice of green pepper, a wedge of onion, a cube of chicken and 2″ piece of carrot, alternating all the way down the skewer. Roast on the grill over low coals until the chicken is thoroughly cooked, spreading fresh marinade on ever few minutes.
Teriyaki Chicken on a Stick – Use thin-sliced chicken cutlets marinated in Teriyaki sauce. Slide flat onto a bamboo skewer and grill for a few minutes each side. These will cook fast, so watch those babies!
Boneless Smoked Pork Chops – Smoke the chops until fully cooked, basting with pineapple juice every few minutes. Serve with warm pineapple chunks.
BBQ Roast Maui Onions – Use medium sized Maui, Vidalia or other sweet onions (one-two per guest). Peel the onions and chop off the top and bottom. Cut a square of tin foil large enough to enclose the onion, and place onion in the center. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and add two pats of butter on top. Close the foil and seal the onion. Roast these on the grill (away from the flame) for about 10 to 20 minutes. They are done when the onion is tender.
Veggies in a Pouch – Combine fresh carrots, celery, onions, green and red peppers chopped into large pieces together in a tinfoil pouch with salt, pepper and butter. Seal it and place on the grill for 10 to 15 minutes, turning occasionally, until vegetables are tender