Soothing hunger with food that has that earthy, smoky “imu taste” is a rare delight in modern Hawai`i, but one that I experienced twice this past summer when my friends dug and filled their family imu in their backyard. I wrote about it for Hemispheres, the magazine of United Airlines, for their First Person section. Unfortunately, it is no longer accessible online, so I have included it here in full:
Sharing the Imu Experience
By Christine Thomas
When the earthy scent of smoking kiawe wood drifts through my windows, I don’t even have to glance at the clock to know it is time. One house makai, toward the ocean, at my landlords’ hula studio, they have lit the imu, a traditional Hawaiian underground oven. A palpable atmosphere of celebration pervades our street as much as the smoke that now drifts through the sky. I put on my slippers and walk over. In the side yard of the house, abundant with palms, ferns and ti plants, I discover a small group of men standing sentinel around the pit, shovels in hand, imu rocks red and glowing.
Though cooking food in an imu is a longstanding Hawaiian tradition, it’s not every day that people in Hawai`i, even native Hawaiians, cook this way. And though a large amount of food can be cooked within—the one in front of me is about two feet deep and five around, and can be stacked high—it’s still much easier to turn on your kitchen stove. The men had to gather early today to dig out the pit in sandy ground, then as if readying an elaborate fireplace, pile specially chosen, round lava rocks with thick kiawe logs, a thorny mesquite wood.
If the kitchen is oft considered the heart of a house, then this imu throwing off heat in front of me can be thought of as the heart of Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian proverbs liken the imu to a source of absolution and sacred power, and even use it as a metaphor for death, the ultimate authority; however it is connected most to the core tradition of hospitality. Literally and metaphorically, the contents of an imu should always be shared willingly with strangers, a practice that arguably led the Hawaiian monarchy to intricate and complicated foreign relationships throughout its post-contact history.
Visitors who attend commercial lu`au feasts may or may not make contact with an imu, as they are, with some noted exceptions, often presented more as entertainment with dancing and activities. Local lu`aus are food and family centered, most common for large celebrations such as a child’s first birthday, graduation parties, fundraisers and even weddings. Beyond those occasions, it’s no secret that people in Hawai`i love an excuse to get together for a party.
Today the imu is lit in celebration of the visit of my landlords’ two sons from the mainland. It’s an opportunity to reconnect, but also to pass on and perpetuate knowledge. The imu has always had the same practical function, but each family has their own construction methods, usually passed down from father to son. It is the visiting sons who today lead their cousins and other available men in the building, with their father there to guide and pass on the family tradition learned from his own father as well as his wife’s. Now they all take turns watching the fire, waiting until the rocks are hot enough and the kiawe has turned to smoldering coals.
As I watch the smoke billow above the men’s heads and beyond, I realize I, too, am part of this passing on of knowledge, not only to a new generation of family but also to a new generation of Hawai`i’s community. The survival and adaptation of this ancient cultural practice into a new millennium of diverse cultures is nothing less than remarkable. With my eyes fixed on the rocks, beautiful and primal, awaiting fire and destiny, it is easy to understand why Hawaiians believe that everything, even these imu rocks, contain divine power or mana.
But my business is not with the fire, so I follow the path and find the aunties in the kitchen. We’re going to try a new recipe for kulolo, a taro dessert. If the imu is the heart, then taro is the lifeblood. Hawaiians believe that from taro birthed the man who became ancestor to the Hawaiian people. Auntie and I grate small shavings of the slippery, steamed taro so it will easily melt together, adding brown sugar and coconut cream so the taste of the root comes through with just a hint of sweetness. Like mad scientists, we don’t measure, just taste. When ready, we line a conveniently modern metal pan with ti leaves, then pour in the mixture and cover with foil.
As the fire continues to burn, we make more food to feed the imu, dishes that illuminate changing influences on an evolving way of life. Lu`au leaf—the tops of the taro plant—is the central ingredient in most Hawaiian dishes, leading to such feasts and celebrations now being called lu`aus instead of the ancient term pa`ina. They’re used in our squid lu`au; Palasami, a Samoan corned beef dish; and lau lau, wrapped chicken and pork. A neighbor has also brought a turkey just to see how it will taste, and another has brought some chickens. Breadfruit and both Hawaiian and American sweet potato have been readied in a wire basket. And of course there is the pig. Though wild boar are prevalent, a whole pig can be difficult or, as it is today, expensive to acquire. Instead, we load as many parts that could be afforded in chicken wire, set to be cooked through. Everything will come out with that delicious “imu-taste” that cannot be attained in the oven, and will later be accompanied by staples like poi, a paste made from taro, and cool dishes such as lomi salmon and haupia.
I’ve attended a lot of family lu`aus over the years, and all are slightly different depending on the occasion and the people giving them. As a guest, I’ve usually only been present for the party and the eating, and until now, have never been involved from start to finish, from the building and lighting to the imu’s uncovering. This inclusion and new experience means more than the promise of eating fresh local food. It is my own new connection to the origins of this place, where my ancestors did not originate but where I call home.
At eight o’clock, everyone gathers in the night to watch the men cover the imu with chopped stumps of banana trees brought from someone’s farm. The pig is set closest to the fire, then the trays of food are balanced on top. When all has been included, the offerings are covered with wet burlap coffee sacks, sheets of plastic, and finally a thick plastic tarp on top. The men shovel back the sandy earth around the edges to keep the tarp tight and the heat inside.
The first steps now complete, we eat the mix of pupus, or appetizers, that have been brought to the house, and talk story, old and young together. Since I’m a new addition to this group—I’ve only been living next door, in back of my hula teacher’s house, for just a few months—many ask me where I’m from. Though I was born and raised here, I’m haole, or Caucasian, and time spent living in London, New York and California has smoothed any local accent. Those who don’t know me may not know what to make of me, but all accept that I am there. In another facet of Hawaiian hospitality, a stranger who is around long enough may eventually be welcomed as hanai, or adopted family.
Later, when the teenagers have escaped to other parties and many have gone home, the rest of us bring chairs and gather around the imu. Someone has to keep watch for escaping heat, but really it is the star of the event. Three ukuleles are produced, and my landlords and another Auntie, their memories and voices confident, take turns singing favorite family songs.
Eventually we’ll sleep and, twelve hours after the imu was covered, return to delicately unwrap it, steam still escaping, and eat the fruit of our labor. We’ll pull the pork to make kalua pig and cabbage, enough for everyone to take some home. We’ll talk story some more, and all help to clean up. Then it’ll be back to daily life, work or play, kids or other responsibilities. But for now we come together, sharing knowledge and building relationships.
As I listen to the music, the imu moves and breathes like the great heart of the Islands and its people. I realize then that this imu is the culture, and I know that even as things change, it remains protected and alive.