Let’s Have a Hawaiian Luau


FLOWER leis, the hula, and swaying palm trees. Mention Hawaii and such things come to mind. Millions of visitors from all over the world come to Hawaii to see these and also to take part in our world-famous luau, or Hawaiian feast. *

On a warm, balmy evening, as cool ocean breezes blow, a giant Hawaiian sun slowly sinks into the Pacific Ocean. Come be our guests at one of the hotels that regularly host typical Hawaiian luaus. I see that you are already in the mood, as you men are wearing traditional aloha shirts and you ladies, lovely muumuus. We are a bit early, so let’s go and see how our food is being prepared.

As we enter the luau grounds, we are greeted by a maiden in her ti-leaf skirt. She then presents each of us with a flower lei and a tropical drink to cool our parched throats​—always good after a long day of sightseeing or sunbathing on the sandy beaches. Spread before us on tables are such delicacies as poi, sweet potatoes, lomilomi salmon, and other popular island foods.

Our attention is drawn to a steaming mound of dirt away from the dining area. We observe several husky men wearing loincloths, who are carefully moving dirt and layers of leaves to the side of the mound. Soon we see a whole roasted pig pulled out of the ground. It is to be the main course of our luau. You might be asking yourself, ‘Are we going to eat this? It smells delicious, but it certainly doesn’t look appetizing or sanitary.’ However, before you think of leaving, let me explain how the meal is prepared, and you will see that there is nothing unsanitary about it. I know that you will try this delicious sampling of ancient Hawaiian cooking once you understand the method of this unusual cooking style.

What Is an Imu?

The imu was used by the ancient Hawaiians to cook a variety of their foods. Very simply, it is an underground oven. Besides pigs, they cooked fish, chickens, and smaller birds as well as sweet potatoes, taro roots, breadfruit, and puddings in the imu. Even the leaves of the sweet potato and taro were used in cooking.

The smaller items might have been wrapped in ti leaves and steam roasted. This cooking method is called laulau. The entire process of cooking in the imu is termed “kalua,” literally meaning “the hole.” Hence, our main course is  known as kalua pig. This method of cooking is really a combination of roasting and steaming, as we shall see.

The ancient Hawaiians dug a hole large enough to accommodate all the meal items. Work usually began early in the morning so that the food would be ready for the evening meal. Firewood was laid in the bottom of the hole, similar to the way a large open campfire would be built. Tinder and kindling were laid out, and a pile of wood large enough to burn for three or four hours was carefully added.

The logs were arranged around a stick standing upright. Later the stick was removed, and smoldering ashes were dropped down into the hole to start the fire. Fires were started by rubbing two sticks together. Smooth basalt stones were then placed on top of the wood. Basalt was used because it could be heated without bursting. The stones might range from the size of a fist to that of a bowling ball. Quite a number of stones were needed, as they and the rest of the coals were the source of heat for the entire cooking process. The stones were heated until they were red-hot. Then any unburned wood was removed.

After the stones were brushed free of ashes, some of them were placed into the abdominal and thoracic cavities of the salted pig to ensure thorough cooking. Smaller cone-shaped stones might be inserted into the cavity of the chickens as well. The rest of the stones and coals were then evenly spread over the bottom and sides of the hole and were covered with layers of grass and ti or banana leaves. The stumps of the banana plant might also be smashed and thrown over the stones. This would prevent the intense heat from burning or scorching the food and would also provide moisture so that the food would be, in effect, roasted and steamed at the same time.

After enough leaves were in place, the pig was lowered onto the leaves, along with the rest of the meal. Everything was again covered with another generous layer of leaves. Tapa cloth made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree or mats made of woven lauhala were next spread over the leaves so that there was no chance of any dirt coming in contact with the food. The entire mound was then covered with a thick layer of dirt, so as not to allow any steam to escape from the imu. Water was sometimes sprinkled over the mound to keep it moist. At times, a hollow piece of bamboo was inserted into the mound if the cook deemed it necessary so that more water could be added.

Cooking time depended on various factors, such as the amount and type of food put into the imu and the number of stones that were used. It might have taken several hours for the pig to be fully cooked, depending on its  size. When it was decided that enough time had passed, the dirt was carefully removed, followed by the mats and the leaves, to reveal the cooked meal. The food was placed in receptacles, allowed to cool, and then served cold. Uncooked meat was cut out and cooked at another time or in another fashion, such as by broiling or boiling.

Since the ancients had no fireproof utensils, food to be boiled was placed in a wooden bowl with water, and red-hot stones were dropped into it. The uncooked meat might also have been salted, being preserved in this manner for later use. Since cooking was hard, heavy work, the men cooked the meals. For obvious reasons, the imu was used over and over again. It was often located under some kind of a shelter, which formed a permanent kitchen for use in bad weather.

The Imu Today

Today at our luaus you will notice that things haven’t really changed much as far as the use of the imu is concerned. A wire mesh might be used to keep the pig together while it is being removed from the pit, as the kalua cooking method causes the meat literally to fall off the bones. Burlap bags have replaced the woven mats or tapa cloths. But other than such minor innovations, the imu has survived intact despite many other changes in the Hawaiian culture.

After all the meat is off the bones, more salt may be added according to taste. Then the kalua pig is ready to eat. Let the luau begin! You may choose to sit here on this mat on the ground and eat off a low table or sit at a more traditional Western table with chairs. In either case, we know you will be glad you stayed for our feast.


^ par. 3 Although the luau may originally have had some connection with false religious practices, the word has simply come to refer to a Hawaiian banquet. Many Christians may therefore conscientiously feel that they can participate.

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You Don’t Have to Dig a Hole

If you would like to try this Hawaiian treat, you will most likely have to come to Hawaii for an authentic luau. But if you are willing to settle for a reasonable facsimile, you might be able to cook your own kalua pig right in your kitchen.

Even here in Hawaii, we do not all have time to use an imu every time we want to eat kalua pig. Therefore, we have made adjustments in order to save some time and effort. Instead of a whole pig, you might settle for a pork butt or roast. For a leaner meat, you might even use chicken or turkey. In any event, rub the whole roast with one tablespoon of liquid smoke per pound [0.5 kg] of meat. This seasoning will give your meat a smoky smell and taste.

If you are able to obtain green ti leaves, wrap the meat in them. Place it in a slow cooker, as this more closely duplicates the moist heat of the imu. If you don’t have a slow cooker, your regular oven will work just as well. To keep as much of the moisture in as possible, cover your roast with some foil after wrapping it with ti leaves. Use a low oven temperature of 325 degrees Fahrenheit [160°C], and cook until well done. The meat should fall away from the bones easily. Shred the meat, and add some of the juices, or drippings, to moisten it. Now your homemade kalua pig is ready for your luau.

After trying this sample of Hawaiian cooking, you may be moved to come here and enjoy the real thing.

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Red hibiscus

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Popular island foods include poi, sweet potatoes, and lomilomi salmon

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The hula

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Ron Dahlquist/SuperStock

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A traditional welcome with flower leis

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Removing the kalua pig from the “imu”