Hands-on experiences at the Polynesian Cultural Center

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Creasepaul Tofa demonstrates how to make the Samoan dish of palusami.
Creasepaul Tofa demonstrates how to make the Samoan dish of palusami. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

I gripped the breadfruit as tightly as possible in my left hand as I hacked away at the rough, green skin with a jagged piece of coconut shell. My forearms were burning and beads of sweat gathered on my forehead as I worked up a solid appetite for the traditional Samoan feast to come.

Travelers are increasingly on the search for hands-on, interactive, culturally-authentic experiences. Hotels and tour providers in Hawaii are responding. The Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu’s North Shore, noticing the popularity of such activities, launched the umu, underground oven, cooking experience, which starts before the center opens, in early 2019.

Creasepaul Tofa greeted us in the Samoa portion of the PCC, which has six “villages” representing different Polynesian cultures, all with their own distinct activities, presentations and performances.

Tofa grew up on the island of Savaii, the largest Samoan island, and learned the traditional way of cooking from his family. In Samoa, Tofa told us, men do most of the cooking and boys start learning around age 8 and are expected to be able to prepare a meal on their own by 12. 

The first order of business was preparing the umu. River rocks were used along with wood and coconut husks to form a mound. Tofa rapidly rubbed two pieces of wild hibiscus to generate the spark for the fire. As the rocks heat, which takes more than an hour, the food is prepared for cooking. Some in the group peeled green bananas while I was on breadfruit husking duty with another team. We also made palusami, a traditional Samoan dish of wrapped bundles of taro leaves with a coconut and onion filling. Tofa showed us how to layer the leaves and wrap each one properly to prevent spillage. The food is then placed in different positions in the umu depending on how much heat it needs. Most of the items were placed on top of the rocks and then covered with green leaves, creating a steam cooker. With few exceptions, almost everything was executed with tools available in Polynesian jungles. To move the hot coals, Tofa made tongs by bending plant stems into hand-held pincers.  

While the food cooked, Tofa turned to demonstrating cooking skills that also would come in handy if lost in the wilderness. First he walked through his fire starting technique, and everyone had a chance to see just how hard it is to get smoke from two sticks. Tofa also demonstrated how Samoans weave their own plates and baskets with palm leaves, and we all had a go at making our own mailo (woven plate). Finally, it was time to peel the leaves off the top of the umu and enjoy the lunch of our labor.

By the time we finished our plates, the PCC was opening and starting to come to life. Re-energized by the chicken, fish, green bananas, breadfruit and palusami, I started my self-guided tour of the other villages, which include Tonga, Tahiti, Aotearoa, Fiji, and Hawaii. Each village has a cultural show that runs four to five times through the day, and the schedules are staggered so it’s easy to move from one village to the next and find new action. Get inked with a temporary tattoo in Aotearoa (New Zealand), as you learn about Maori traditions, test your coordination with a dance lesson in Tahiti, and sample poi in the Hawaiian village.

The PCC also introduced a new afternoon show set on boats on the canal running between the villages last summer. “Huki” runs daily at 2:30 p.m., although grabbing a seat along the banks of the canal closer to 2 p.m. is advised. The show is bursting with energy, song and audience  participation, chronicling the story of Maui, a common connection in the mythology of Polynesian cultures made famous in the Disney film “Moana,” and then follows the spread of people across the Pacific islands, where new cultures bloomed.

There are three luau dinner buffet options, the most extravagant of which, the Alii Luau Buffet, includes a show of song, dance and story representing traditions from across the Pacific. Additionally, PCC produces HA: Breath of Life, featuring a cast of more than 100 performing Polynesian dance, music and fireknife routines as they tell a circle-of-life story chronicling a young couple fleeing from a natural disaster, the birth of their son, and his coming of age.
Huki is included with general admission at PCC, which is open everyday except Sunday,  while the luaus and HA:Breath of Life require additional tickets. A variety of PCC packages are available that combine two or more of the various experiences with general admission.

The Samoa village umu experience costs $98 per person and is limited to a maximum of ten people.

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