Pig in a Pit: Cooking Dinner in an Imu

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First off, I do realize that I’m a lucky, lucky girl to even be able to share this with you. If it’s cold at your house right now, consider this a little virtual visit to the islands, would you?

My boys and I recently spent a week at the Kahumoku ‘Ohana Music and Lifestyle Workshop hosted by our friend, Keoki Kahumoku. There was plenty of music, hula, lei making, weaving – and lots and lots of food. Lots of local food. In addition to being a Grammy-winning artist, Keoki is a farmer and pig hunter who is passionate about living sustainably. Much of the food we ate – from the tangelos the kids juiced each morning for breakfast to the poi and tilapia – was grown or raised right here on the island.

After every meal, table scraps and kitchen trimmings went into the slop bucket, which was carried across the yard to feed the pig. The pig that was destined to become dinner later in the week. The pig was butchered right on site and participants were invited to watch the process if they wanted to. That may seem a little gruesome, but really, it’s a lesson: No waste. We even had a young vegan who, though he chose to stick to his vegan diet, dove in and helped with the entire process of butchering.

So, how do you cook a 250 pound pig in Hawaii? In an imu, of course! An imu is an underground oven, a method of cooking that goes way, way back. It’s not a job for one person; preparing the pit and cooking in this method is a team effort. We started by digging a big hole in the middle of the lawn (I’m so not kidding).

The beginning of a pit

This is the spot where the imu is done every year, so when the kids (who did most of the heavy work) dug deep enough, they uncovered the rocks used for retaining the heat in the imu. These rocks are piled in the center of the pit and topped with firewood.

Firewood stacked on top of the stones.

Once the fire is hot and most of the wood has burned, it’s time to start adding the food. Banana stumps go on top of the hot rocks as a buffer between the food and the heat, so nothing burns. The stumps are very wet and dense, which helps to retain moisture in the imu. The pig is wrapped in leaves and chicken wire to aid in removing it once it’s cooked – it will be falling off the bone.

Banana stumps cover the hot stones; the food goes in on top of those.

The food is covered with a thick layer of banana leaves and then a layer of ti leaves.

The food is covered with banana leaves.

More ti leaves.

The fresh leaves are then topped with a layer of burlap around the edges, a bed sheet, and a tarp. All of these layers are then covered with dirt so it looks like this:

Completely covered with soil. Now we wait overnight.

The food inside (pig, turkey, sweet potatoes, taro) cooks overnight. The next day, everyone is excited to see it all emerge.

Everyone wants to see the pig come out of the pit!

Removing the covering and getting to the food is hot work. The pit still retains plenty of heat – the leaves are steaming and so is the food.

With the sheet and tarp removed we can see the wilted ti and banana leaves – and a bit of our dinner.

Much of the food prep is done right at the imu. Kalua pig and turkey is shredded into big pans and often tossed with chopped cabbage. The meat has a wonderful moist, smoky flavor from the wood fire.

More food prep.

There are many more photos in the gallery below if you want to see more of the step-by-step imu action (click on each image for a larger picture). If you’re interested in seeing photos of the entire week long event, you can click over to the Center for Hawaiian Music Studies, Inc. page on Facebook.

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  • Liz ,

    that’s so cool that you did that in your own back yard! I remember eating NZ Maori hangi as a kid, but I don’t know how to build one myself, will have to remember this next time I have an entire pig to cook….

  • NoPotCooking ,

    Fascinating! I have eaten the end product but never seen how it all happened from start to finish!

  • I’m sure it was quite an experience. The fact that I cannot face butchering animals is one reason I continually struggle with eating meat.

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