When you think of the top locations to get barbecue, Hawaii may not be what first comes to mind. But it is Hawaii’s imu preparation of pig that earns it a top ten spot on a recent poll. It mentions the traditional luau menu that includes a kalua pig, poke and poi. That much is true. But it is also possible to taste kalua pig on a variety of menus throughout the islands. it shows up as a sandwich, in plate lunches and even in tacos or on nachos. I always encourage Hawaii visitors to give it a taste – the slow underground preparation produces a rich flavor unlike any other.
An online definition of kalua says it means the process of cooking in an underground oven as well as the resulting flavor. I guess it could also apply to the pretend kalua pig recipes that use a crock pot or oven. They’re practical since it’s not convenient for everyone to dig a fire pit in their yard and the overnight cooking process is a little cumbersome for daily meals. Even these faux kalua pig recipes are pretty good but only if you can’t get the real thing.
While pig may be the luau king, all sorts of things are cooked in an imu in Hawaii. After all, if you’re going to get the coals going, you may as well throw in everything edible and invite the neighbors. Imus are usually a group event in Hawaii, with extended family or communities. Our high school football team has an imu for turkeys at Thanksgiving that is wildly popular. All the birds are cooked together and they then go to the holiday meals of many families.
I guess what threw me off is that this slow-cooked kalua meat is not generally CALLED barbecue in Hawaii. It’s also different from the outdoor grilling that is popular with locals. Cuts of meat are generally very thin and cooked quickly. There are uniquely Hawaii flavors for the sauces used by each cook. Grilling at the beach is a weekend custom for many families here in the islands. And then there’s Huli-Huli chicken, best located from the wonderful smell wafting from roadside or parking lot grills of impromptu vendors. Selling Huli-Huli Chicken is a popular fund-raising project for schools or community groups.
While it is nice to be recognized as a top barbecue location, I think the poll misses the mark. Kalua is one of MANY ways to cook meat outdoors in Hawaii. It may be the best known but it is not the most common, and certainly doesn’t adequately describe all of Hawaii barbecue. We may be at the top of a list for barbecue variety!