Hawaii Beach Imu

An imu is not a large, flightless bird. That’s an emu. The big birds live in Australia but imus are common in Hawaii. The words are pronounced the same, which caused some confusion for a colleague. On his first Thanksgiving after moving to Hawaii, a friend invited him to share a holiday meal on the north shore, saying there would be an imu. My colleague thought he would be dining on one of the big birds, wondering how you get such exotic fare in Hawaii and whether it was a protected species.

There was no need to worry. Almost anything can be cooked in an imu — a traditional method of baking food underground. It takes some work and a long time, so food is usually cooked in an imu on holidays or special occasions. A pit is dug and a fire set in the bottom. Rocks are heated in the fire. When the fire burns out, the pit is lined with the hot rocks. If you are roasting an entire pig, some of the hot rocks are placed inside it. The meat is then placed on a bed of banana stalks over the hot rocks and covered with damp banana leaves. A wet tarp is placed on top and covered with sand. The meat cooks all day. When it comes out, it is so tender it falls off the bone.

Often schools or community organizations make a large imu and cook meat for many people. In Kailua, the football team has used an imu as a fundraiser, charging a modest amount for baking overnight meat people bring before a holiday. Pork that is cooked in this manner is called “kalua” (kah-loo-ah), which means “pork baked underground.” Kalua pork is a fairly common menu item on the islands. The difference between tasty meat and the town where I live is an “i”: Kailua takes its name from “kai”, the sea. It is pronounced “Keye-loo-ah”. Right, Bruce?