Luau Terminology: What Is an Imu?
When you attend a Hawaiian luau, you find yourself immersed in customs passed down from generation to generation. Originating in the various parts of Polynesia, luau traditions are found in just about every aspect of the festivities, including the food. One typical element of the Hawaiian luau is a method of cooking that’s been used all over the world, throughout Europe, across the Pacific, and even in the Americas.
Known locally as an imu, this method of cooking is most often used to cook kalua pig and other delicacies for the luau feast. Simply put, an imu is an oven created by digging a hole into the ground. While it may seem like an easy method of cooking, especially since it allows for large quantities of food to be slow-cooked at one time, there’s a reason why the imu is almost exclusively used for large ceremonies and parties.
Building an Imu
By the time you arrive at a luau, the imu has already been dug and the food buried within has been cooking for hours. In preparation, a 2-to 4-foot deep hole, with sloping sides, is dug. The size of the oven depends on how much food is being prepared.
Cooking with an imu is completely natural. Kindling is used to start the fire and rocks are traditionally used as a base for the food to sit on. Between the rocks and the meat is a bed of banana leaves, ti leaves, and coconut palm leaves and a bed of vegetables that simmer in the juices of the protein, which at most luaus is a whole pig that will be shredded to make kalua pork. Another popular dish cooked in the imu is laulau, which is fish and vegetables tightly wrapped in taro leaves and steamed along with the pig.
The cooking process uses steam, which helps keep everything moist, and in the case of the pork, incredibly tender. Between building the imu, heating the stones, and thoroughly cooking the food, the whole process takes the better part of a day. The end product, however, is well worth it. The mingling of flavors and the tender, juicy meat are exquisite.
The Imu Beyond Hawaii
While it’s popularly known as being a central part of a Hawaiian luau, using the earth to create an oven is not exclusive to the islands. Head east or west, and you’ll find evidence that earth ovens have been used all over the world.
The North American Mainland
Signs of early earth ovens have been found in Central Texas, but the cooking method is still in active use today at New England clam bakes. It started as a Native American tradition and, much like the imu, involves heated rocks, a layer of seaweed, and the main course.
Earth ovens aren’t in widespread use in modern Europe, but they did pop up during the Neolithic and the Bronze and Iron Ages. The Greeks used a similar cooking method known as “thief style” (kleftiko), which involved using clay to wrap the food and cooking it in a covered pit.
Similar to the Hawaiian imu, cooks in North Africa restrict use of the earth oven to special occasions. In Morocco, the meat of choice is lamb. Using an earth oven is a common cooking method among nomads, who travel without the luxuries of kitchen equipment. The ovens are also used to bake bread.
Around the Pacific
Residents of islands all throughout the Pacific are known for using earth ovens for special occasions. In other parts of Polynesia, the oven is known as an umu, while in Micronesia it’s called a lovo or koua. In the Solomon Islands, it’s known as a toku.