I like Hawaiian food for many reasons. It is a meld of many types of cuisines: Polynesian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, American, Portuguese, and more–many of which I like to cook. Hawaiian food also has retro and vintage flair. Tiki first become in style in the mid-century, possible because American soldiers brought stories back about Polynesia and the South Pacific when they returned home after WWII and the commercial airline industry made travel more accessible. The bright colored (and often over-the-top) Hawaiian prints and rum drinks make tiki fun, and the tropical climate, flowers, and warm waters are something to long for. And it makes me reminisce about relaxation, a slow-paced small town life, and vacations (particularly the vacation that my parents surprised my sister and I with as a Christmas present years ago and the vacation that William and I took in Hawaii about a year ago).
Kalua literally means “to cook in an underground oven” in Hawaiian (wiki). It is a traditional Hawaiian cooking method which uses an imu, a type of underground oven made from a dirt pit which is lined with hot rocks to provide heat. Meat, fish, and vegetables are added, often salted and wrapped in wet ti leaves or banana leaves, and then the imu is covered with wet burlap and a layer of soil to retain heat. The imu cooks by slowly roasting and steaming for several hours. Real Kalua pig is a whole pig cooked in an imu but you can make a similar version in your oven using pork shoulder. It won’t have the same smokey flavor but it will be quite tasty. The best part of the recipe for oven-roasted kalua pig is that it only needs a few ingredients and it is very easy.
You will need a large roasting pan which can fit a large cut of pork shoulder (such as ahalf-sized hotel pan), hold several cups of liquid, and be covered tightly with aluminum foil. A piece of bone-in pork shoulder with a fat cap on one side that is 3-2/3 to 5 pounds (or larger if it fits in your roasting pan) is perfect (see the pictures in “Oven-Roasted Kalua Pig & Cabbage” from TastyIslandHawaii.com); the fat will partially melt while the pork cooks and flavor the meat. The pork will give off liquid as it cooks, so you need to use a roasting pan which is large enough to hold several cups of liquid.
The pork is rubbed with salt. Traditionally alaea sea salt (wiki) is used, which is sea salt mixed with alaea (baked Hawaiian red clay), but you can substitute nearly any type of the salt. Substitute an equal weight of salt (not an equal volume) since types of salt differ in how salty they are by volume due to the salt crystal shape and grain size (see here). For example, for 3-2/3 pounds of meat you could replace 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp (26 g) medium-grained Alaea Hawaiian salt with 2 Tbsp 1 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt since it also weighs 26 grams.
Many recipes for oven roasted kalua pork use liquid smoke to mimic the smokey taste that the pig gets when cooked in an imu but I left out the liquid smoke since I wanted a natural flavor. See “Oven-Roasted Kalua Pig & Cabbage” from TastyIslandHawaii.com if you would like instructions on how to use liquid smoke.
The pork is wrapped in either a banana leaf or several ti leaves and then in aluminum foil, and placed in a tightly closed container with some water to provide steam, and cooked at a very low temperature (220F) for 8 to 10 hours in order to make it meltingly soft. An easy way to cook it, is to start just before you go to sleep and then take it out of the oven when you wake up.Since kalua pork needs to be cooked for many hours, this dish needs to be made ahead of time; luckily this dish reheats well, so it can even be made a day in advance.
Banana leaves are easier to find; they are often available in the frozen section of Southeast Asian grocery stores. Ti leaves can somtimes be found in Hawaiian grocery stores, and I have read that they can be ordered from florists, though I haven’t personally tried this. The leaves infuse the meat with a subtle flavor, but they are optional, you can just use aluminum foil if you like. The meat is served shredded, to allow the melted fat to mix with the meat and to make a uniform consistency and flavor (wiki).
The picture at the top of this post shows kalua pig & cabbage with lomi lomi salmon.
Source: Modified from “Oven-Roasted Kalua Pig & Cabbage” from TastyIslandHawaii.com
Oven-Roasted Kalua Pig & Cabbage
- pork shoulder, 3-2/3 to 5 pounds (or larger if it fits in your roasting pan), bone-in is preferable
- alaea Hawaiian salt, use about 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp (26 g) medium-grained alaea Hawaiian salt for 3-2/3 pounds of meat to 2 Tbsp for larger pieces of meat, or substitute an equal weight of another type of salt
- 1 banana leaf
- (optional) 1 small green cabbage if serving kaula pork with cabbage
- (optional) serve with freshly cooked Japanese rice
- aluminum foil
- large roasting pan large enough to fit the meat, hold at least 4 cups of liquid, and be covered with a lid of aluminum foil.
Preheat oven to 220F.
Wash the banana leaf and rinse the meat. Shake off the excess water, but do not completely dry it since the moisture will keep the meat moist. Salt the meat on all sides. Note which side is the fatty side–you want to roast it with the fatty side up so that the fat melts down onto the meat. Wrap the meat in the banana leaf (banana leaves can be large; mine encircled the meat about 3 times) and then wrap tightly in aluminum foil, completely enclosing the meat. It is okay to refrigerate the salted and wrapped meat overnight if you want to wait to cook it.
Place the wrapped meat, fatty side up, in the roasting container or a heavy pot large enough to fit the pork with a tight fitting lid and pour in 2 cups of water. The water will surround the bottom of the meat. Cover the container tightly with aluminum foil (use several layers) or the lid. An imu cooks by roasting and steaming; the water and the tight cover on the pan mimics the imu’s steam and moisture.
Cook at 220 F for 8 to 10 hours. Then turn off the heat and without opening the oven, let the meat sit in oven with the heat off for 1 to 2 hours longer, while it cools down.
Now you have a choice. You can either shred the pork when it is warm or you can refrigerate it (still wrapped in aluminum foil) before you shred it. The advantage of refrigerating it is 1) you can shred the meat whenever it is convenient for you 2) the rendered fat will solidify and this will allow you to control exactly how fatty tasting the dish is (though you should keep much of the fat–without this the pork will be dry and bland). If refrigerating, then drain the juice into a container and put the pork (still wrapped in aluminum foil) into another container; unroll a little corner of the wrappings and check that the pork is soft enough to shred easily, and then rewrap the pork. If not, then the pork needs to be cooked longer. Once refrigerated, the rendered fat will solidify on top of the liquids; spoon the fat off and reserve it for use in heating up the pork.
Reserve the liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan; there should be several cups since the pork gives off liquid as it cooks. If you refrigerated the dish, then heat the juices until simmering. Unwrap the pork and discard the banana leaf and aluminum foil.
Use two forks to shred the meat. It should shred easily (if not then it needs to be cooked for longer). Include some of the fat in the shredded meat. A common mistake is including too little fat. You can remove large pockets of fat but be sure to keep some fat–it has lots of flavor. Don’t be afraid of leaving in fat; without it the meat will be dry and dull tasting.
If you refrigerated the meat, then heat the meat, some of the rendered fat, and perhaps some of the fatty pieces of meat and add the hot juices to taste; otherwise if you just finished cooking, then everything should still be warm or hot and you can simply mix everything together to taste.Flavor the shredded kalua pork, to taste, with the pork juices. A common mistake is making the dish too salty so taste carefully as you season it; the juices are very salty so don’t add all of it (if for some reason they aren’t salty enough to flavor the pork, then you can also use additional salt). You should add the juices until it tastes good to you, when can detect the salty flavor but it isn’t over salted. If you plan to eat the pork over multiple days and feel unsure about how much salt to use, you can slightly under salt it now, and use the excess juices to finish salting it in small portions when it is rewarmed.
Reserve the excess salty juices, rendered fat, and solid fat. They are very flavorful; you can use them to reheat the pork, to make kalua pork with cabbage (recipe below), or even in other recipes.
Kalua Pork is a good party food since it keeps for several days and reheats well, so if you have time to make it ahead of time, it can make several great weeknight meals. It also freezes well; place individual or meal sized proportions of the shredded and seasoned pork (with no cabbage) in ziplock bags or storage containers. Freeze extra salty juices in small ziplock bags or containers in case you need to more for seasoning or to make kalua pork and cabbage. Defrost the pork before stir-frying to reheat (the frozen juices can simply be heated in a small pan to melt).
Serving Suggestions: You can serve this on its own or with Japanese white rice. In Hawaii, they often use an ice cream scoop to measure and scoop out the rice–“plate lunches” often come with “two scoops of rice” (wiki) . You can also serve it on soft rolls (such as hamburger, potato, or Hawaiian rolls) as a sandwich. You can also sauté it with cabbage (see below).
I like kalua pork best when sautéed with cabbage, which how I had it at Local Food in Lahaina (yelp), which had the best kalua pork that I had in Maui (most other versions I tried in Maui were way too salty). I like the contrast of crunchy cabbage against the pork, and the cabbage also offsets the saltiness and fattiness of the pork. This is also a great usage of leftover kalua pork.
To make Kaula Pork and Cabbage:
Cut cabbage into strips about inch wide and two inches long.
Heat a pan or large wok on medium to medium-high. Add the prepared shredded kaula pork (that you made in the recipe above). It should have enough fat to grease the pan; if not use some reserved solid fat or reserved rendered fat to oil the pan (this also adds flavor). Cook stirring frequently until the pork shreds become somewhat separated (there will still be some clumps) and are heated through.
Add some chopped cabbage (the amount depends on how much meat you have and what you want the meat to veggie ratio to be) and some of the reserved salty juices, to salt the cabbage and meat to taste. There should be just enough liquid to steam the cabbage for a few minutes (it should lightly coat the pan); you can add water if the reserved juices are too salty to provide enough liquid.
Cover the pan with a lid in order to steam the cabbage, stirring occasionally (add more liquid if necessary). After a few minutes the cabbage will have wilted, but it should still have some bite to it. Uncover and stir. Taste and add more of the reserved juices if it isn’t salty enough. Cook a minute or two more if there is still liquid in the pan to mostly dry the juices. The dish is done when most of the liquid has evaporated, the pork is warm, the cabbage is wilted but still has bite, and it tastes salty and fatty enough.
Serve with rice.