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What does kalua mean in Hawaiian?

Kalua is a Hawaiian word that has multiple meanings depending on the context. At its most basic level, kalua refers to a method of cooking food in an underground oven known as an imu. However, kalua can also refer to the food cooked in this manner as well as other cultural practices and traditions in Hawaiian culture.

The Cooking Method

The primary definition of kalua refers to food cooked in an imu, an underground oven dug into the earth. To prepare an imu, a pit is dug and lined with volcanic rocks that are heated over an open fire. Once the rocks are hot, the food to be cooked, traditionally pork or other meats, is placed on top and covered with more hot rocks, wet mats, and a layer of soil. The food is left to steam and roast for several hours in the imu before being dug up and served.

This ancient Hawaiian cooking technique infuses the food with a wonderfully smoky, earthy flavor. The long, slow cooking process also makes the meat incredibly moist and tender. Kalua pork and other meats cooked in this customary manner are considered Hawaiian culinary specialties.

Key Features of Kalua Cooking:

  • Food is cooked in an underground imu oven
  • Hot volcanic rocks provide heat and flavor
  • Meats and root vegetables are typically cooked
  • Results in robust, smoky flavor
  • Provides very moist, tender texture

Kalua Pig

One of the most well-known Hawaiian foods cooked using the kalua method is kalua pig. To make this dish, a whole pig is rubbed with salt and wrapped in ti leaves before being placed in the imu. After many hours, the pig emerges incredibly tender and imbued with a distinct smoky flavor.

Kalua pig is traditionally served at luau feasts and other Hawaiian gatherings. It can be eaten on its own, used as a filling in sandwiches or tacos, or served with classic sides like poi, lomi salmon, and haupia. Slow-cooked kalua pork is considered both a Hawaiian culinary staple and a symbol of the islands’ distinctive food culture.

Key Features of Kalua Pig:

  • A whole pig is cooked in an underground oven
  • Flavored with sea salt and ti leaves
  • Requires a lengthy cooking time of 6-12 hours
  • Produces succulently tender, fall-off-the-bone meat
  • Has a smoky, slightly salty taste

Other Kalua Dishes

While kalua pig may be the most famous, other types of meat are also cooked using this underground oven method. Chicken, beef, mutton, seafood, and mixed meats were traditionally cooked in an imu. Some other classic kalua Hawaiian dishes include:

  • Kalua Turkey – Turkey wrapped in ti leaves and cooked for hours resulting in a juicy, smoky flavor.
  • Kalua Goat – Goat meat infused with an earthy taste from the imu and smoke.
  • Kalua Oio (Bonefish) – A local Hawaiian fish wrapped in lauhala fronds before being cooked in the imu.
  • Kalua Mushrooms and Vegetables – Vegetables like taro and breadfruit, or mushrooms, roasted in the imu.

Anything cooked using the customary Hawaiian kalua method absorbs a delicious smoky essence and tender texture. While the technique originated with cooking meats, all types of foods can be prepared in an imu.

Cultural Significance

In addition to being a cooking method, kalua also has profound cultural symbolism in Native Hawaiian traditions. The wisdom and skills needed to properly prepare an imu oven and cook pork and other meats in it were traditionally passed down through generations. The kalua technique reflects the deep connection early Hawaiians shared with the land and sea.

Gathering the right type of wood for burning, stones for heating, and native vegetation for wrapping and protecting the food requires extensive environmental knowledge. The imu itself represents the earth oven from which all life springs forth. And sharing in a kalua pig feast embodies the spirit of community and reciprocity in Hawaiian culture. Kalua cooking truly reflects a harmonious relationship between humans and nature.

Cultural Importance of Kalua:

  • Passed down knowledge and intergenerational wisdom
  • Connection to the land and sea
  • Sense of community and working together
  • Following natural rhythms and environmental intelligence
  • Respect for resources from the earth and nature

Modern Cooking Methods

As Hawaiian culture modernized in the 20th century, cooking kalua outdoors in an imu became less common. Newer kalua recipes adapted the technique to the convenience of indoor ovens. While not wholly traditional, these updated cooking methods allow Hawaiian kalua flavors to be enjoyed more regularly.

Some contemporary kalua cooking techniques include:

  • Oven roasting wrapped in banana leaves at low heat for 6+ hours to mimic an imu.
  • Pressure cooking with liquid smoke added for flavor.
  • Slow cooking in a crockpot with koa wood chips or on a bed of banana stumps.
  • Outdoor pit roasting above ground when an underground imu is not practical.

Kalua cooking has evolved with the times while staying true to the origins and cultural meaning behind it. Whether cooked traditionally or with modern flair, kalua flavors evoke the spirit of old Hawaii.

Kalua in the Hawaiian Language

Examining the Hawaiian language roots of kalua provides further insight into its diverse meanings. In the Hawaiian language, ka means “the” and lua means cave or pit. So kalua literally translates to “the pit” referring directly to the earth oven cooking method.

Kalua can also be defined more broadly in Hawaiian to mean:

  • To cook in an underground oven
  • To bake, roast, steam or fry
  • To heat anything over a fire or in an oven
  • The state of being roasted or baked

So while kalua is most famously tied to imu cooking, the term is flexible enough to apply to roasting, baking, or heating food in any sort of fire, oven, or pit in old Hawaii. Looking at the genesis of the word in the Hawaiian language gives greater perspective on its diverse cultural meanings.

Popular Kalua Dishes to Try

Kalua remains an integral part of contemporary Hawaiian cuisine and culture. Some popular kalua dishes to seek out and sample include:

Kalua Pig

The most iconic kalua food, smoke-infused pulled pork or whole hog.

Kalua Turkey

A leaner alternative to pork but just as tasty after a slow cook.

Kalua Goat

Gamey goat meat benefits from a long kalua cook time.

Kalua Oio

Local Hawaiian bonefish wrapped in seaweed when cooked in an imu.

Kalua Garden Salad

Mixed greens, vegetables, and smoked meat served with a vinaigrette dressing.

Kalua Mushrooms

Meaty mushrooms infused with smoky, earthy flavors.

Dish Main Ingredients Cooking Method
Kalua Pig Pork shoulder or whole pig, sea salt, ti leaves Underground imu oven 6-12 hours
Kalua Turkey Whole turkey, banana leaves Covered pit roast 4-6 hours
Kalua Goat Goat meat, koa wood Slow oven roast
Kalua Oio Hawaiian bonefish, lauhala fronds Imu
Kalua Garden Salad Mixed greens, vegetables, kalua meat None, just assembly
Kalua Mushrooms Mushrooms, banana leaves Outdoor covered pit


Kalua’s layered meaning encompasses both a traditional Hawaiian cooking method and deeply cultural symbolism. The term kalua signifies meat, especially pork, roasted in an underground imu oven. But it also connotes the wisdom of generations passed down and the connection between humans and the natural world. Kalua cooking remains a distinctive and important part of Hawaiian cuisine and heritage today.