Barbecue. Or Bar-B-Q. Or BBQ. Few foods can inspire conversation and controversy like meat that has been cooked using the heat and smoke of a fire. Heck, not only can’t we decide on how to spell the word, we don’t even agree whether it’s a noun or a verb. This year we will exploring barbecue across the U.S.A.
When speaking about barbecue in Hawaii, it is important to make some distinctions, or you’re liable to get a very big surprise when you see what’s on the menu. The term “Hawaiian BBQ” has a very different meaning than what you might expect. Hawaiian BBQ restaurants are very popular on the West Coast and even in more distant outposts like Las Vegas and Atlanta. But don’t go in expecting to get some smoky pork shoulder or St. Louis–style ribs.
Instead, Hawaiian BBQ has come to mean a style of food also known as “plate lunch,” the Polynesian equivalent of a “meat and three” in Southern states. Blending an interesting mélange of Polynesian and other ethnic foods, plate lunches are generally served cafeteria-style, where the diner receives a tray — which is then piled with a double serving of rice, a helping of macaroni salad and a hot entrée of your choice. These main dishes can be as traditional as chicken katsu, fried chicken strips with dipping sauce, or as bizarre as loco moco or saimin with grilled Spam.
The Loco Moco is a decadent plate of hamburger patties served with two eggs and covered in creamy gravy. Saimin is a noodle soup dish which when served with Hormel’s spiced ham potted meat food product and is, shall we say, an acquired taste.
Instead, since you’re following this Year of Barbecue series, you’re probably more interested in Hawaii’s version of a good old pig roast, Kalua pork. No relation to the Mexican coffee liqueur, Kahlua, that adds the punch to your favorite Mudslide or B-52, Kalua is the Hawaiian term for cooking in an underground oven.
Despite being co-opted for tourist pleasure at countless luaus and in stereotypical movie scenes, the Hawaiian pig roast does have a strong basis in their culture. Feral hogs have been a staple protein in the islands for centuries, and the preponderance of lava rocks, nature’s prefect heat conductors, makes for an excellent method to cook the huge beasts. Just like the lava rocks that you can buy to put between your gas grill’s heating element and the cooking grate, this igneous stone is a natural miracle when it comes to roasting a pig.
Whole hogs are cleaned and simply seasoned with sea salt — both inside the cavity and all over the delicious skin. A pit is dug in the earth or the beach, and an open fire is made with acacia koa wood, a member of the pea family endemic in Hawaii. Rather than use the wood and smoke to cook the pig directly, piles of volcanic rocks are heated directly over the fire in the pit, which is locally referred to as an imu.
“Despite being co-opted for tourist pleasure at luaus and in stereotypical movie scenes, the Hawaiian pig roast does have a strong basis in their culture.”
Once the rocks are sizzling hot, some are stuffed directly inside the pig’s cavity to cook from the inside out. The rest of the carcass is then girdled in a wire mesh cage to hold the discrete parts together and then wrapped with either banana or ti leaves, a plant more commonly known as the cabbage palm. This swaddling in vegetation adds flavor to the pig and provides a natural medium to steam the pork over the indirect heat from the hardened magma.
Finally, the kalua pork is covered with even more leaves for insulation and buried under dirt or sand for 8-10 hours to steep in its own delicious porky juices. Because the wood fire smolders, there is some smoking effect from the cooking process, but primarily the flavor of the pork itself shines through in the finished product.
After the pig is disinterred, usually after many fruity umbrella drinks have been consumed (similar to the traditional “12 beer” Southern pig smoking), the cooked pig is dramatically presented to the diners. Less like a pig picking party where participants pull the pork shred by shred, this is more like a porcine explosion, as the incredibly tender meat literally falls off the bone once the cage has been removed.
Large chunks of pork are served with taro root, which are often steamed along with the pig until it forms a wallpaper paste-consistency Polyneisan staple known as poi. Most people would be hard-pressed to enjoy poi on it’s own, but alongside this delicious pork, and perhaps under the influence of a Mai Tai or three and some Don Ho classics, it’s actually quite palatable.
The time-honored hula dance at most luaus is meant to tell a story through the graceful gestures and shaking hips of the dancers, but some of the real history of the islands is buried in that imu. Just like other barbecue traditions that take advantage of indigenous meats and woods to cook tough old pigs to a sublime tenderness, the Hawaiian pig roast is a testament to the ingeniousness of chefs from a long ago era. The methods are easily replicable in your own back yard, so pull out those tiki torches from the garage and have yourself a Hawaiian hoe-down of a throw-down.
Read more from the Year in Barbecue on Food Republic: