When you think of Hawaii what immediately comes to your mind? Do you think of the fragrant flower leis, the hula, the surfing? Or, do you think of the famous Hawaiian meal or feast, the luau?
As the beautiful Hawaiian sunset begins, guests pour out onto the beach to savor the smells wafting from the luau site. There you find the men in the traditional aloha shirts and many women wearing the lovely (and comfortable) muumuus.
After being blessed and receiving your flower lei and a cool tropical drink you see lined up on tables just some of the delicacies that you’ve been looking forward to. Island favorites such as poi, breadfruit, taro and sweet potatoes take center stage. However, the ‘star’ of the meal or main course is still in a hot steaming mound of dirt away from the place where you will be dining. There you will find several strong men moving the dirt and layers of leaves to the side so that soon you will see the whole roasted pig being dropped from the ground.
Is this meal being prepared in just a ‘hole in the ground’? No, not at all, rather it is being cooked in an imu. The imu which is simply an underground oven has been used for centuries by the Hawaiians to cook not only roasted pig but also chickens, fish, sweet potatoes, taro root and much more.
The ancient Hawaiians would usually start work early in the day with the hole being dug and firewood laid on the bottom of the hole. There would be enough wood to burn for three or four hours. The firewood was arranged around a stick that was stuck in the ground standing straight up. Later, the stick was removed and the smoldering ashes were dropped down the hole to start the fire.
Basalt stones ranged in size from small to large were heated until red-hot. A large number of stones were needed since they and the coals were the heat source for the cooking process. Some of these stones would be placed into the animal cavities to ensure thorough cooking. Then, the remaining stones would be placed over the bottom and sides of the hole and covered with layers of grass or ti leaves.
The covering of leaves and grass would help prevent the high heat from burning the food as well as provide moisture so that the food would essentially be roasted and steamed at the same time.
After the covering of leaves, the pig was lowered along with any other food to be cooked at the same time. Then, more leaves were added before covering with tapa cloth. This cloth was spread over the leaves so the next layer would not contaminate the food. The final layer is a thick layer of dirt so that no steam could escape.
As with most cooking methods, the cooking time depends on the amount and type of food to be cooked. Of course, with a large pig to be roasted several hours would be needed.
We have briefly looked at the ancient cooking method for the luau. However, have things changed very much? Not really. A wire mesh might be used to hold the pig together for easy removal from the pit since this type of cooking yields literal ‘falling off the bone’ tender meat. In place of the tapa cloth, today burlap bags are used.
It is amazing that this original ‘slow cooking’ method has changed so little in so long a time, so so many changes that have taken place in Hawaiian culture.