Baking Kalua Pork with an Imu
A favorite lu’au dish is kalua (kah-loo-ah) pork, which literally means “pork baked underground.” According to Island custom, the preferred method to cook a pig is in an underground oven (called an imu [EE-moo]): A whole pig is placed over a fire in a pit lined with banana leaves and hot rocks, is covered with hot rocks, sand and dirt, bakes for a whole day and is removed at sunset for a community feast. The results are, quite simply, out of this world.
Imu are still used at many contemporary lu’au, and if you’re adventurous and have the help of a few friends, you can also tackle this day-long project. Here’s how:
Gather Materials and Ingredients
- A whole pig; plan for about 1 pound per guest.
- Enough banana stalks to line the bottom of the three- to five-foot-deep hole you’ll dig, plus enough banana leaves to fully cover the pig.
- A shovel.
- Wood to build a fire in the bottom of the pit (koa or kiawe is recommended, but any wood will do).
- Kindling and matches.
- Enough smooth, dry rocks to line the bottom of the pit, plus three to five more to stuff inside the pig. The best rocks are round and dense (fine-grained), with no sharp corners to break off under heat stress. This type of rock will hold heat and is not susceptible to water absorption.
- Large, strong tongs.
- A table, planks on sawhorses, or other platform to put the pig on while you’re preparing it (place it right next to the imu pit).
- Chicken wire to wrap the pig in (so you can carry it), plus a few wire ties.
- A heavy, wet canvas or burlap tarp to cover the pig.
- Enough sand for a six-inch-deep layer on top of the tarp.
- A large, shallow container, preferably with handles, for transferring the cooked pig to the kitchen. The container must be big enough to transport the entire cooked pig.
- A bowl of ice water to dip your hands in periodically as you scoop the tender, steaming meat off the pig.
Build the Oven
The day of your lu’au, start early in the morning (approximately 11 hours before you want to eat) or, if you have a very large pig, the previous evening:
- Dig a pit. If you have both sand and a tarp you only need to go three feet deep. If you only have a tarp and/or have a large pig, dig a hole five feet deep.
- Kindle a fire in the bottom of the pit. (If you’re using an old pit, clean out any rocks or refuse.)
- Once the fire gets going, add the wood and then the rocks. Note that if the rocks have retained any moisture, the water will expand and possibly shatter the rock, sending shards flying. Very dangerous.
- As the fire heats up, the rocks will turn from dark to white. Use this time to prepare the banana stalks. They should be cut into 2′ to 4′ lengths, then whacked with a heavy bar to split them. This is not easy work, so assign this job accordingly.
- Wet the tarp now, and re-wet the banana leaves if they’ve dried out. This is important, because it’s the steam that cooks the pig.
- This is also a good time to prepare the pig. (Make sure you put the chicken wire down on the work table first.) Open up the armpits so hot rocks can be placed in each of the sockets. You should be able to fit 5 small or three large rocks in the pig. Keep track of how many rocks go in, so you know how many you need to remove later. Also, you may want to cut slits along the pig’s neck, like gills, to make it easier to carry.
- When the rocks have all turned white, you’re ready to cook. First, remove any remaining wood chunks from the fire pit to avoid scorching the pig.
- Next, arrange the rocks so they line the bottom of the pit. Take out the number of rocks you’ll insert into the pig; knock the ash off of them.
- Make a bed of banana stalks on top of the rocks.
- Approximately nine hours before you want to eat (for a 100-pound pig), insert the ash-free rocks into the pig, then fasten the chicken wire around it and lift it into the pit. (This will require at least two strong people.) If you have a smaller pig, calculate the cooking time at 1 hour for every 8 lbs. Don’t worry about overcooking the pig; it is difficult to do in an imu.
- Cover the pig with damp banana leaves. Place the wet tarp on top of the leaves (make sure the tarp is clean, especially if you want to unveil the pig in ceremonial fashion). Finally, cover the tarp with about six inches of sand to seal everything in.
- That’s it for the next nine hours or so. Go prepare the rest of the lu’au.
- When the time comes to unveil the pig, have your large container ready to transport it to the kitchen. (You don’t want to do the next part in front of your guests). A few notes of caution:
- Remove the sand carefully, so it doesn’t get in the meat
- Remove the tarp and banana leaves carefully as well; they’ll be very hot
- Count the rocks as you remove them from the pig (use tongs) to make sure you’ve got them all
- Watch out for dripping oil; open-toed shoes aren’t recommended
- In the kitchen: The meat should practically fall off the bone. Use one of the pig’s shoulder blade bones as a shovel, and keep that bowl of ice water handy!
You did it. Now proudly take those platters of homemade kalua pork to the buffet table and treat your guests to a mouthwatering experience they’ll never forget!
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