Traditional Hawaiian earth oven cooks turkey to perfection

Written by Eden Kruger November 26, 2010 11:15 am

I don’t even really like turkey, but anything cooked in an imu comes out tasting delicious.

An imu is a traditional Hawaiian earth oven. It takes days to prepare and that’s only if you already have the right stones and other materials that can be hard to find.

Uncle Jim, my dad’s older brother, made an imu for Thanksgiving for six or seven years at the country house on the north shore of O’ahu. The last year, 45 “pieces” were included in the pit including turkeys, pork butts, corned beef briskets, fish, chicken and lau laus, made expertly by my dad. Lau laus are packages of ti leaves and taro leaves usually filled with pork, yam and salted butterfish. Uncle invited neighbors and friends from all over the island to put food into the imu. This was a real feast, a real time for thanksgiving.

At the country house, Uncle inherited his first stash of imu stones from his neighbor. The rest came mostly from nearby Kaluanui Stream which runs into the ocean from Sacred Falls. You want to choose rocks with small pores and the ones that transfer the heat best are ones that are round. If you choose the wrong kind of rocks, they could explode or lose heat, which would keep the food inside the imu uncooked. A few large flat stones are helpful for certain cooking tasks like cooking whole pigs. The stones can be used over and over again. My grandpa, Uncle and Dad’s dad, kept his stones in his Kaimuki yard below the boys’ bedroom window.

Uncle chose a spot farthest from the house in the corner of the yard for the pit. The bowl-shaped pit was dug into the soil-sand mixture within a retaining wall. Below, an ever-changing but always sweet North Shore beach and beyond, the Pacific Ocean.

Uncle would actually take a few days off of work to make preparations. Certain materials needs to be sourced and collected from around the island a few days before the fire for the imu is lit. One is kiawe wood. Related to mesquite, the gnarly wood grows in many places around the islands. It can’t really be purchased in stores so you just need to know someone who has access to it. The hardwood imparts a lightly sweet and smoky flavor and burns hot and long.

Also essential are banana stumps, banana leaves and ti leaves. The leaves lend flavor and moisture, which makes steam and act as wrappers. The stumps, which provide the main source of moisture and later steam, can be harvested after the bananas are formed because one plant will only make one bunch of fruit. Also needed is lots of kindling and paper, clean burlap bags, a canvas tarp, chicken wire and a length of pipe.

The night before, having assembled all materials and organized deadlines for adding food to the pit, Uncle would first put the 4-foot pipe in the center of the hole or lua. Kindling and paper make the bottom layer. The kiawe is stacked flat for the next layer. The rocks are then stacked on top into a pyramid shape. The largest rocks, a little smaller than a volleyball, make the base while smaller rocks, as small as hardballs, made the ascending layers.

To light the imu, law-abiding citizens on O’ahu first call dispatch to notify the fire department of the impending feast (and the related smoke). When the pipe is pulled out, it leaves a hole that allows lighter fluid to reach all layers to make a strong fire. When the rocks start glowing red, the rocks are rearranged to ensure the heat is even. Excess hardwood coals will actually make a pit that’s too hot so they must be removed. You just want hot rocks.

While the fire is burning, some preparation of the banana and ti leaves and stumps has to be done. Uncle usually soaked the burlap and ti in a 55-gallon drum. It’s hard to find a house in Hawaii without ti. Sledgehammers are needed for the seven to 10 banana stumps. Two-foot sections are smashed into a pulp after the outer section, which is harder than the heart, is removed. The heart of these banana stumps are then shredded. Banana stumps stain clothes a dark black-brown that will never wash out.

After the hot rocks are arranged to line the imu, chicken wire is the next layer. On that, the shredded banana stumps make the thick layer called hali’i. The turkeys, seasoned and wrapped in ti leaves and then banana leaves and then foil, are put in next. They are marked so that the owners can identify their food when the imu is opened four to five hours later.

After the turkeys are placed into the pit, they’re covered completely with wet ti leaves and then banana leaves. Uncle and his workers would then tuck the pit in completely with the burlap bags and then the canvas tarp. Three to four inches of soil went over this. During the cooking process, places where heat was felt were covered with more dirt.

After four to five hours (10-12 hours for whole pigs), the imu will have dropped lower and is soon opened up. If the pit was covered up by 8 a.m., usually the meal could be enjoyed by noon or 1 p.m. There’s zero chance that kalua turkey will come out crispy and golden brown like the oven turkeys that will be served all over the country Thursday. Uncle describes them as looking pale but in my memory they will always be green, colored by the young ti leaves. You can’t carve a kalua turkey. To serve, peel the meat off with a fork.

We ate it with rice and gravy and all the usual good stuff. A special part of Thanksgiving at the country house was the people “gabbing and talking story,” the kids playing on the beach and swimming and people just sticking around and really enjoying themselves.

What does kalua turkey taste like? It’s hard to describe. Homesick islanders in the mainland make a substitute kalua meat with liquid smoke but it pales in comparison to the real thing. The taste is everything that’s in the pit — the ti and banana leaves and trunks (which smell nothing like a banana), the rocks (and therefore the rivers they come from), the kiawe smoke and the salt air from the nearby ocean.

Uncle says it just “broke da mouth,” meaning, you’re left speechless. Your mouth won’t want to taste anything else.

Eden Kruger is the news assistant at The Observer.