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After a visit to Honolulu, I returned enthusiastic about the Imu, the traditional Hawaiian underground oven. If you’ve been to a traditional luau, you’ve had kalua pig cooked in an imu. The word kalua means “the hole”. Depending on the pig’s size, it is steamed in an underground pit, sometimes for days. Throughout Polynesia and in many other cultures, earthen ovens have been used for centuries. They are a highly effective way to produce succulent proteins and vegetables without an ounce of electricity.
Really, you can only eat so many carbonized weiners.
While I have always loved cooking outside and enjoy the morning ritual of getting the embers going, camping food is rarely special. It’s hard to control the fire without standing vigil every second. Something always burns. Something is always undercooked. In recent years, meals for the yearly camping trip with my college friends consist of variations on the foil pack theme: individual hobo packs and the like.
The flavor of the food cooked in an imu is unmatched and it frees you up to snuggle with your new love, go for a hike, watch Ellen’s last show, or even do some quick manscaping in your tent.
Consider the imu nature’s crock pot. Maybe you can recline in your new zero gravity camp chair where that perfect combination of rustling leaves and a few beams of sunshine poking through the trees will lull you into a nice nap. This doesn’t have to be just for camping. If you have even the smallest swatch of yard you can do this at home. This summer or fall put on some Don Ho and start digging. It’s worth the ten minutes of cardio. Here’s how to do it.
Pork shoulder is an easy protein to work with. Serve it Cuban style with tortillas, avocado, and salsa verde. An entire pig would be fun, but totally unrealistic if you’re camping. Cooking in a small hole would take a few hours to a half day for the meat to become flavorful and succulent.
This may feel intimidating but it’s really quite easy. Don’t let the digging scare you away.
What Do You Need to Make an Imu?
- 5-8 Burlap bags
- 8-10 Banana leaves, fresh or frozen
- 1 or 2 Grill grates
- 20 pound bag Charcoal
- Foil pans
How do You Prepare an Imu?
Folding banana leaves over coals in an imu
Photo courtesy of Kandace Davis
- Dig a hole three feet deep by four feet wide with sloping slides. Save the dirt you’ve excavated. You’ll need it. If you choose a shady area with soft ground, a typical small camping shovel will work. Go for a bigger hole if you’re feeding a crowd. The pit must be large enough to contain an entire bag of charcoal and the food you’ll be serving.
- Layer the bottom center of the pit with plenty of kindling. Dried leaves, small branches, and twigs are best. Try to avoid newspapers as the print could infuse toxic ink fumes into the food. On top of the kindling, add an entire bag of natural, untreated hardwood charcoal. I use Rockwood brand which comes in a 10 lb and 20 lb bag. For this recipe, use about ¾ of a 20 lb bag. Light the kindling and let the charcoal become white hot. This will take about an hour. Hawaiians would traditionally use hot stones heated to 1,000 degrees and placed carefully into the oven with giant tongs. We aren’t doing that.
- Wear gloves to avoid a steam burn. The cooking process requires steam and not dry heat, so banana leaves will help you easily achieve this. You can find these at Global Foods or other international markets. If your banana leaves are frozen, you can place a double layer of them directly over the coals. If they’re fresh, wet them down before placing them. You are ready to cook.
- Carefully straddle a campfire grill grate (readily available online) over the coals. If you’re cooking for a larger group, consider using two grates and you’ll need a larger hole. Place your foil-wrapped edibles on the grill grate. We will get to specifics about what to cook in a bit.
- Wet down four burlap bags or a roll of burlap and lay them over the foil-wrapped food. Be sure that the burlap extends beyond the opening of the hole. You are going to be covering all of this with dirt and you want to keep the dirt from falling into the imu.
- The final layer is a tarp (anything will do) followed by the excavated dirt which is shoveled over the top of the tarp in order to keep any steam from escaping. Estimating cooking time is tricky. For this pork shoulder recipe, plan for five hours if it goes too long then all the better. As you become more confident, consider other foods including whole vegetables or smaller pieces of beef brisket.
- When finished brush away any loose dirt from the edges of the covering material. Avoid getting dirt into the imu. Uncover the layers of banana leaves and burlap sacks. Allow the foil-wrapped foods to cool for ten minutes before serving.
Pork Shoulder Recipe
Imu cooked pork shoulder
Photo courtesy of Kandace Davis
Yield: Serves 10
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: Approximately 5 hours
- 5 pounds Bone-in Pork Shoulder
- Citrus Garlic Seasoning
- Pat the pork shoulder dry with paper towels.
- Season liberally with salt and citrus rub.
- Double-wrap the pork in heavy-duty aluminum foil by placing the meat on the two sheets where the foil meets, and seal the foil tightly by folding it multiple times until it meets the top of the pork. Seal the foil on the sides in the same way.
- Place When the pork is finished cooking, allow it to rest for 10 minutes.
- Break the meat apart with forks and season again if necessary.
- Serve the meat with the prepared toppings or sides.
Suggested Pork Shoulder Sides
- Avocado slices
- Pickled onions
- Salsa verde
- Corn and/or flour tortillas
- Black beans
- Roasted corn
What Can I Cook in an Imu?
- Whole Chicken
- Beef Brisket
- Whole sweet potatoes or russet potatoes
- Whole acorn squash or spaghetti squash
About the Author
Kandace Davis began her career at a large suburban St. Louis school district where she taught English and theater. In 1999, after training with the Culinary Institute of America, she moved on to pursue her culinary dreams. She enjoyed a twenty-year career as a chef and founded the award-winning St. Louis food company, Cha Cha Chow, which was thrice named by The Daily Meal, NYC, as one of the top food trucks in America. Kandace and Cha Cha Chow have been featured in the St. Louis Business Journal, Sauce Magazine, Feast Magazine, and “Show Me St. Louis.”
In 2013, Kandace was nominated and accepted into Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, fine beverage, and hospitality, and serves on the board of her local chapter. As part of her work to help provide healthy food to underserved communities, Kandace is a supporter of Earthdance Organic Farm School and Mutual Aid St. Louis. She has participated in local events supporting the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Black Lives Matter movement, and, as a breast cancer survivor, The Breast Cancer Fund.
In 2019, after three spinal surgeries, Kandace stepped down from Cha Cha Chow. She is now working on a memoir about her mother’s mysterious and violent death by suicide and the amazing grandmother who raised her.