The Hawaiian tradition of roasting a whole pig in an underground oven called an imu creates the juiciest, tender, most delicious pork you will ever taste! Other meats as well as vegetables also come out tender and taste amazing roasted in an imu. Kālua is the traditional Hawaiian cooking method that means “to cook in underground oven”. Food cooked in an imu are described using this term like kālua pork or kālua turkey.
The instructions for creating a traditional Hawaiian imu oven are simple but it is a labor intensive task to create the pit and prepare the imu.
Dig a hole, but not too deep or it will make it difficult to remove the cooked pig. For a 200lb pig the hole should be approximately 3 feet wide by 5 feet long by 1 foot deep.
Place newspaper and kindling on the bottom of the imu pit then stack mesquite wood on top of that extending at least 1 foot above the top of the pit. Mesquite briquettes can also be used. Arrange the lava rocks on top of the wood pile. The rocks should be of sufficient quantity to cover the bottom of the imu pit after the fire has burned down and also have enough to fill the stomach cavity of the pig.
Set the fire and let it burn to coals. Use volcanic rocks otherwise the rocks could explode once heated. The fire should burn 1-1/2 to 2 hours. The rocks should be HOT, preferably white hot! Set some hot rocks aside to put inside the pig. Rake any remaining coals to one side, leaving the hot rocks bare.
Fill the inside of the cleaned and gutted pig’s stomach cavity with hot rocks. Some people like to line the inside of the pig with banana or ti leaves prior to inserting the hot rocks. Slits can be cut into the skin to release steam.
Smaller food items going into the imu like fish, shellfish, and vegetables should be wrapped in ti or banana leaves to make bundles, like shown to the left. The food will steam cook inside the bundles.
On top of the hot lava rocks lay down about a 6 inch layer of leaves/stalks. You can use banana leaves, ti leaves, corn husks, corn stalks, banana stalks, Chinese cabbage or any combination. Place on top of the leaves a clean piece of chicken wire large enough to hold the pig and any other items you will be putting in the imu. Top the chicken wire with more leaves/stalks then place the pig with the rocks in it’s stomach cavity on top. Put any other items you want to roast. Fresh leaves and stalks will release moisture when heated and create steam to cook the food. The chicken wire will make removing the tender cooked food a lot easier.
Have a minimum of 100 loose banana or ti leaves cleaned and ready to use. Put a single layer of ti leaves or taro leaves over the food then cover everything in a thick layer of banana and/or ti leaves. Burlap cloth or bags (50 minimum) well soaked in water can also be layered on top of the leaves to reduce the number of leaves needed for the imu.
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