"We have never had a perfect imu," Honolulu chef Ed Kenney told me. I took it as a Zen statement, that perfection is never attainable. But no, Kenney really meant it. What would be a perfect imu? I asked him. "Where everything comes out perfectly cooked," he said. "But everything's always overdone. It's an imperfect science."
He seems intent on dispelling any romantic notions of the imu, the traditional Hawaiian method of pit cooking. Almost every culture has its version of this underground oven, from the New Zealand hangi to the New England clambake. The gist of it: dig a hole, fill it with hot rocks and wet stuff, add your food, and seal it. The difference is in the materials: where a clambake uses beach stones and seaweed, in Hawaii it's lava rock and banana stumps.
A Cookout at MA'O Organic Farms
I woke up at 5:00 AM to drive out to MA'O Organic Farms in Waianae to see what Kenney was going to, apparently, cook the bejesus out of in his imu. For the past few years, MA'O has thrown a party on its farm to raise funds for its youth and community education programs. MA'O is more than a farm: It is a classroom for many Wai'anae youth, who come from one of the poorest areas of the island. In exchange for working part-time raising vegetables, the interns receive a full tuition scholarship and stipend. Every year, Kenney caters the event. His restaurant, Town, shares the same philosophy as MA'O: Through a connection with food, we can change the world.
This year, when I asked Kenney what he was going to cook in the imu, he promised something particularly enticing: sheep fed fallen mangoes, served with fresh mangoes from the orchard it grazed in. Mango-raised mutton, pastured in Makaha, near MA'O? Even without the allure of the imu, it sounded sensational.
"TV makes it look sexy. But it's a lot of work."
But it's easy to see how the nostalgia of underground pit cooking can get buried. Kenney arrived at the farm at 3:00 AM — after wrapping up a shift at his restaurant at 1:00 — to light the fire in the imu, which MA'O interns had prepped with a layer of kiawe wood and lava rocks on top. "Whenever we talk story about the imu, we totally romanticize it," Kenney said. "And I've done it where it's been [idyllic] — aunties and uncles and everyone helping, drinking beer ... kids running around and laughing. But, for the most part, it's just like our business [in the restaurant]. A lot of work. TV makes it look sexy."
Banana Stumps and Lava Rock
At 7:00 AM, as we waited for the wood to burn out and the rocks to heat up, Kenney realized he doesn't have any banana stumps ready. He grabbed a machete and started cutting down banana trees in a nearby grove. Building an imu at MA'O seems difficult and time consuming, but it's way worse off the farm. Here, at least, you have everything you need for an imu, including banana plants.
"This is what really gives the imu its signature flavor. It's the banana stumps."
"This is what really gives the imu its signature flavor," said Kenney, as he threw a tree over his shoulder. "The minute it goes in [the imu], you're going to smell it and go, holy shit, that's what real kalua pig and laulau taste like. It's the banana stumps. So the pit ovens in every culture — like the hangi, they use salt bush — it does the same thing, but it gives it a totally different flavor."
The banana plants also provide moisture. Imu cooking uses a moist heat, more akin to steaming than roasting. As Kenney felled each plant, you could see the water pooling at the cut edges. The stalks smell like and are the color of honeydew.
Kenney layered the banana tree stumps over the hot rocks and then prepared the meat for the imu. The sheep was already butchered and marinating in achiote and oranges, a take on cochinita pibil with mutton instead of pig.
Surprise: Whole Hog
Except, surprise! There was a pig, too. Someone had dropped off a whole pig, raised by the father of one of the interns. "Well, if you're going to dig a hole, you might as well put as much as you can in it," said Kenney.
He loaded the pan of sheep onto a repurposed wire fence lined with banana leaves, then hoisted the pig next to it. A hot lava rock was placed inside the pig; in the short time it takes four people to lower the meat into the pit, the air already smelled of roast pork. It was getting really hard to believe that this particular cooking session would not end well, despite Kenney's insistence it wouldn't be perfect.
Gives new meaning to pigs in a blanket.
Once in the imu, everything was covered with banana leaves, wet burlap, and soaked blankets, giving new meaning to pigs in a blanket. Then, the entire mound was sealed with a plastic tarp. Five minutes later, the tarp was already puffed up, like a balloon inflated with steam.
I touched the surface of the tarp; it was so hot I couldn't keep my hand on it for longer than a few seconds. And with just that brief contact, my fingers smelled of smoke. I couldn't believe how quickly the smoke permeates everything. Think of what six hours in that smoke sauna would do to the meat.
12 Hours Cooking, Thousands of Years of Tradition
Six hours later, Kenney and a crew of others uncovered the imu, unleashing a poof of steam. They peeled back the layers. It was immediately obvious how cooked the pig was: the meat was pulling back from the ankles, and all the cartilage between the bones had melted away. The skin seemed to be the only thing holding it all together.
The team excavated the skeleton from the soft mass of meat and then shredded pork and fat together. I pulled a few chunks from the pile ... and it was perfect. Those undercooked and overcooked parts Kenney frets over? Forget that. With everything mixed together, it doesn't matter. It's just good. Ridiculously good. Pork, it turns out, is more forgiving than Kenney's assessment of his imu skills.
The Makaha mutton was even better. Kenney piled some of the shredded sheep into a warm corn tortilla and topped it with radishes, pickled purplette onions, and fresh mangoes mashed with a bit of green chile. He handed it to me, watching for my reaction, but he already knows he nailed this dish.
There was no more talk of misplaced romanticism, imprecise pit cooking, of the 12 hours spent prepping the imu and cooking in it. For what's 12 hours when connecting with the thousands-of-years-old tradition of the imu, and of cooking food from the land, in the land?
— Martha Cheng