Maui Food and Dining

Cook Hawaiian Style and Build Your Own Imu

November 5, 2010, 8:47 AM HST
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At a luau, the kalua pig is the main event.  “Kalua” refers to the cooking process of using an earthen oven, or “imu”, which is really just a large underground steam cooker.  Traditionally ti and banana leaf-covered breadfruit, sweet potatoes, bananas, taro, and other vegetables accompany the pig.

Preparations begin early as cooks dig a large hole in the sand and line the bottom with Kiawe logs and rocks.  They then start a fire and allow the coals and rocks to heat over several hours.  Once the Imu is ready, the rocks are spread across the bottom of the pit and a bed for the pig is made of moist banana stalks and leaves.  The vegetables are then placed beside the pig, and the meal is covered first by a tarp or burlap sack, and then by sand, and left to cook for six to eight hours.

To build your own imu, dig a round pit two to four feet deep and just large enough in diameter to fit the food, rocks and vegetation.  Place the excess dirt next to the pit, as you will use it to cover the oven at the end.  The cooking process requires steam heat, so fuel will consist of kindling, larger, preferably hard wood, and green plant materials. Traditionally, Hawaiians use grass, ti leaves and banana stumps and leaves, but you may substitute with cornhusks and corns stalks soaked in water, cabbage leaves, lettuce, thistle, watercress or cottonwood leaves.

First place the kindling material at the center of the bottom of the pit, then build the larger wood around it.  Place the rocks on top and then light the kindling, as the fire builds, the wood will turn to charcoal and the stones will heat; this takes approximately one and a half to two hours.  Once the stones have reached their maximum heat, spread them evenly across the floor of the oven and lay the first layer of vegetation over them.  This will create the steam for cooking.  Then lay the second layer of ti leaves, which will touch and flavor the food.  Place a few hot rocks inside the pig to help the cooking along, and then place the pig and all vegetables in the imu.

Cover the food with more ti and banana leaves if they are available, or a burlap sack or tarp, and make sure that this layer extends beyond the diameter of the imu to protect the food from dirt.  Finally, cover the pit with the loose dirt and leave your meal to cook for six to eight hours.


Once the food has finished steaming, carefully brush off all dirt and lift the leaves or tarp without getting dirt in the imu.  Unearth the kalua pig with ceremony, extract all of your vegetables, and serve your delicious meal on Lauhala mats and encourage your guests to use their hands.


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