If you’ve been to Hawaii, you’re probably familiar with kalua pig. The dish is served with great ceremony at Hawaiian luaus, where the whole pig is slow-roasted underground in a homemade earth oven called an imu (EE-moo). For pig or poultry, the technique is the same: The animal is seasoned and wrapped in large green ti leaves to keep the meat moist and impart a slightly earthy flavor. Then it is lowered into the heat of lava rocks and smoldering mesquite wood. Finally, it is covered with burlap sacks and insulated with packed dirt.
For big gatherings, meats are cooked that way all day long. Hawaiian superstar cookbook author, cooking-show TV host and James Beard award-winning chef Sam Choy told me in a phone interview that his kids’ schools hold fundraisers for which they build a large imu. For $10 per family, a fresh bird dropped off in the morning will be marked and placed in the pit to cook. At the end of the day, the families pick up the makings of a tasty meal.
When my Hawaiian grandparents moved to Southern California after World War II, my grandfather used to dig an imu to cook kalua turkeys for family events and for his friends at the Knights of Columbus. For my father’s side of the family, that dish is an extension of the traditional luau food served at every celebration, including Christmas, Easter, birthdays and graduations.
Making kalua turkey for Thanksgiving marries Hawaiian culture with an American tradition. It was a way for my grandparents to maintain their Hawaiian culture, even when we couldn’t spend it with our relatives in Hawaii. For me, kalua turkey is classic Hawaiian comfort food.
Here’s the thing: When I left Southern California for the East Coast, I lost my kalua turkey connection. I had never learned how to make it. My husband, who enjoys cooking, prepares a more traditional bird with rosemary and olive oil.
Not long ago, though, my parents moved out of their West Coast beach house and bought a small Tudor home just a few miles away from us in suburban Maryland. That meant only one thing: Imu or no, it was aloha, kalua bird.
I invited my dad to teach me how to do it. The recipe calls for three ingredients: a large turkey; good, coarse salt; and some type of liquid smoke, which can be found at most conventional grocery stores.
However, a little East Coast improvisation was required. Research had led me to contact Da Kitchen, one of my favorite restaurants in Maui. It serves Hawaiian-man-size servings of local food; dishes such as katsu chicken, pork lau lau, lomi lomi salmon and loco moco are daily staples. (Owner Les Tomita flew in food from Hawaii to cater the Aloha State’s ball for President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.)