No matter where our family chooses to celebrate Thanksgiving, I look forward to being transported to Hawaii.
That’s because we prepare our turkey island-style. It looks and tastes nothing like the bland stuff that the Pilgrims might or might not have eaten. The flavor reminds me of a beachside luau: salty, smoky and dripping with juices. The meat is shredded like pulled barbecued pork or chicken. We call it kalua (kah-LOO-ah), which means “made in the earth,” or, more literally, the hole.
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.)
What concerned me most was whether I could use ti leaves, which come from tall, fleshy-leafed plants commonly found in Hawaii. I managed to find a florist that shipped them to me, but further research online advised against cooking with any plant materials that might have been treated with pesticides. To play it safe, I decided the ti leaves would make beautiful decorations.
As it happens, chef Tomita said ti leaf wasn’t necessary. “We’d love to wrap ours in the ti leaf, but we just don’t have time,” he said of his Maui restaurants.
When I was growing up, my dad always used food-grade kosher rock salt for our bird. When I couldn’t find any locally, we used coarse sea salt instead. We rubbed handfuls of it inside the turkey, all over the skin and just under the skin as well, followed by the application of liquid smoke. Although it seems apparent, let me just affirm that this is not a recipe for those who must limit their sodium intake. Hawaiians like their food salty.
We placed the bird on a rack in a roasting pan and sealed it with foil. Near the end of its five hours in the oven, my house began to smell savory, smoky and, oddly enough, like bacon.
“That’s how you know it’s done,” Dad said.
Even after long roasting under cover, the turkey’s skin was golden brown and crisp in places. (Some Hawaiians eat the incredibly salty skin, but I don’t.) The meat fell easily from the bone, as it should. We let things cool down, then got to work shredding it to pieces.
Memories of all the time spent as a turkey shredder/helper in my parents’ kitchen came back as I worked with two forks, creating separate piles of dark meat and light meat.
Meanwhile, Dad had scooped out the lovely juices from the roasting pan and heated them in a pot on the stove, adding water and liquid smoke to achieve the right balance. We poured the two or three cups of the sauce all over our shredded turkey and took a bite. It had the same deep, smoky-salty flavor we remembered. The sauce is key: You want your turkey to be very moist with it.
Speaking of balance, kalua turkey must be served with short-grain rice to offset its saltiness. Hawaiians pair the main dish with a mild macaroni salad or coleslaw, but I love mine with the zingy dressing and won-ton crunch of my grandma’s Chinese chicken salad.
As the island locals say, it’s “ono”: Hawaiian for “delicious.”
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