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Why is it called kalua pig?

Kalua pig is a traditional Hawaiian dish made by cooking a whole pig in an underground oven known as an imu. The name “kalua” refers to the Hawaiian cooking method used to make this dish. So why is it specifically called “kalua pig”? Let’s take a closer look at the history and process behind this iconic Hawaiian meal.

What Does “Kalua” Mean?

In the Hawaiian language, the word “kalua” means “to bake, roast, or cook in an underground oven.” An imu is a type of underground oven that ancient Hawaiians used to cook meals for religious ceremonies and community celebrations. Meat, fish, and vegetables were wrapped in leaves or placed in baskets and roasted by hot rocks heated in a fire pit. The food took on a delicious smoky flavor from cooking underground.

Traditionally, an imu was used for cooking kalua pig and other luau dishes. The pig was rubbed with salt and placed on hot rocks in the imu, then covered with banana leaves and mats before dirt was shoveled over everything to seal in the heat. Several hours later, the imu would be dug up and the tender, juicy, and smoky meat removed for everyone to enjoy at the luau celebration. So kalua pig gets its name from the unique underground cooking method used to prepare it.

Why Cook a Whole Pig This Way?

Cooking an entire pig in an imu had several advantages for traditional Hawaiian cooking:

  • A whole pig could feed many people at luaus and gatherings. Sharing a kalua pig was an important part of community bonding and celebration.
  • The underground heat tenderized the meat completely throughout the pig.
  • The moist heat and protective banana leaves kept the meat from drying out.
  • The meat absorbed a wonderful smoky and earthy flavor during the long cooking process.

In modern times, kalua pork is still popular at luaus and gatherings. While imu cooking is rare, kalua pork can be cooked in a smoker or oven to approximate the flavor. Shredded or chopped kalua pork makes tasty filling for sandwiches, tacos, and other dishes as well.

The Traditional Imu Cooking Process

Cooking a pig in a traditional Hawaiian imu is a time-consuming process that requires careful preparation. Here is an overview of the traditional cooking method:

  1. Dig a large hole in the ground, approximately 4 feet deep and 4-6 feet wide.
  2. Line the hole with lava rocks and set wood or charcoal over the rocks.
  3. Light the fire several hours before cooking to heat the rocks thoroughly.
  4. Once the fire has turned to embers, let the rocks cool slightly and remove excess ash.
  5. Place banana tree leaves, ti leaves, or mesh over the coals to protect the food.
  6. Lower the seasoned and rubbed pig into the imu.
  7. Cover with more banana leaves.
  8. Place mats, burlap sacks, or canvas over the leaves.
  9. Shovel dirt and sand over everything to seal in the heat.
  10. Allow the pig to cook for 4-6 hours.
  11. Uncover the imu once the cooking time is complete.
  12. Remove the tender kalua pig to serve.

As you can see, cooking in an underground imu requires significant time and effort. But the results are incredibly moist, tender, and flavorful kalua pig, cooked all the way through with bone-deep smoky flavor.

Key Ingredients

For authentic Hawaiian kalua pig, the ingredients are simple:

  • Whole pig – Traditionally a whole pig weighing over 100 pounds was used. Today, smaller cuts of pork shoulder or pork butt may be used instead for convenience.
  • Kosher or sea salt – Salt is rubbed all over the pig before cooking to season and tenderize the meat.
  • Optional seasonings – Hawaiian sea salt, liquid smoke, or Hawaiian alaea salt may be added for extra flavor.
  • Banana leaves – Used to protect the pig from direct heat and prevent drying out.
  • Ti leaves or burlap mats – Used to cover the imu oven.

Once cooked, the pork is typically shredded or chopped and mixed with the reduced cooking juices. It can be served as-is or used to make kalua pork tacos, sandwiches, pizza, salads, and more.

Modern Cooking Methods

Today, kalua pig is often prepared using convenient alternatives to the traditional imu:


A wood pellet smoker replicates the imu’s indirect heat and infuses the pork with a smoky flavor. Pork shoulder or butt is rubbed with salt and liquid smoke then cooked low and slow for 10-12 hours.


Pork can be cooked in a covered roasting pan or Dutch oven in a standard oven at 300°F for 4-6 hours. Liquid smoke and wood chips can be added for flavor.

Slow Cooker

Cube the pork shoulder and cook on low heat for 8 hours in a slow cooker with salt, liquid smoke, water, and optional seasonings until fork-tender.

Instant Pot

Pressure cooking cuts the cooking time down significantly. Pork can be made in under an hour in an Instant Pot using the meat/stew setting.

While these methods may not achieve exactly the same flavor as an underground imu oven, they provide a convenient and tasty alternative for making kalua pig at home.

Traditional Side Dishes

At a Hawaiian luau celebration, kalua pig is traditionally served alongside these side dishes:

  • Poi – Made from mashed taro root, a staple starch in Hawaiian cuisine.
  • Lomi salmon – Fresh salmon, diced and mixed with tomatoes, onions, and salt.
  • Laulau – Salted butterfish wrapped in taro leaves and steamed.
  • Haupia – A dessert made from coconut milk.
  • Poke – A raw fish salad marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil.

Together with the smoky and succulent kalua pig, these traditional sides make up the main components of a Hawaiian plate lunch.

Popularity and Cultural Significance

Kalua pig remains an important part of Hawaiian culture and cuisine today. Some key reasons it continues to be popular include:

  • It is an iconic Hawaiian dish that represents the islands’ culinary history and traditions.
  • The saltiness and smokiness provides a unique and addictive flavor.
  • It can feed large gatherings as part of a luau feast or plate lunch.
  • Cooking it is a time-honored tradition passed down through generations.
  • The pork absorbs flavors from the cooking process that cannot be replicated.
  • It honors Hawaiian culinary roots and pays respect to ancient cooking methods.

Kalua pig is regularly served at luaus, festivals, graduations, weddings, and ohana (family) celebrations. The communal experience of eating kalua pork brings people together and connects them to Hawaiian culture.

Where to Find Kalua Pig

If you’re visiting Hawaii, here are some top spots to try authentic, delicious kalua pig:

Location Island Notes
Helena’s Hawaiian Food Oahu A popular Honolulu spot open since 1946, known for kalua pork and lau lau.
Haili’s Hawaiian Foods Oahu Beloved Honolulu plate lunch spot with tender smoked kahlua pork and homemade mac salad.
Da Kitchen Maui Casual Maui eatery featuring kalua pork on burgers, tacos, sandwiches and plates.
Kono’s on the North Shore Kauai North Shore Kauai surf spot with excellent pork and local grinds.
Aloha Angel’s Big Island Food truck near Volcano National Park dishing up huge pork portions.

You can also find kalua pork at most luaus, Hawaiian restaurants, plate lunch cafes, and even food trucks across the islands. It’s the perfect meal to get a taste of authentic Hawaiian cuisine and culture.

How to Make Kalua Pig at Home

Want to make your own kalua pig? Here are some simplified methods perfect for home cooking:

Instant Pot or Pressure Cooker Kalua Pig

An Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker makes quick work of kalua pig:

  • Season a 3-4 pound pork shoulder roast with kosher salt and liquid smoke.
  • Add 1 cup water, 1/4 cup soy sauce, and optional ginger and garlic to the pot.
  • Cook on high pressure for 45-60 minutes until pork is very tender.
  • Let pork rest 15 minutes, then shred with two forks.

Oven Kalua Pig

Long, slow roasting gives this pork a tender, smoky flavor:

  • Rub a 5 pound pork shoulder with salt, pepper, and liquid smoke.
  • Add 1 cup water to a roasting pan and roast uncovered at 300°F for 4-5 hours.
  • Remove pork and shred meat. Stir in pan juices.

Slow Cooker Kalua Pig

Let your slow cooker do the work and make a flavorful kalua pork:

  • Cube a 3 pound pork butt and season with salt, liquid smoke, Worcestershire sauce, and brown sugar.
  • Add 2 cups water or pineapple juice and cook on low 8-10 hours.
  • Shred pork and mix with cooking liquid.

Serve any homemade kalua pig wrapped in tacos, as sandwiches, over rice, or baked into casseroles and you’ll have your own bit of Hawaii close at hand. The long cooking times and deep flavors make it well worth the effort.


Kalua pig gets its name from the traditional Hawaiian method of underground oven cooking known as “kalua.” Cooking a whole pig buried in an imu allowed the meat to become incredibly tender and take on a wonderful smoky character. While imu cooking is rare today, kalua pig remains an iconic Hawaiian dish central to celebrations and gatherings thanks to its melt-in-your-mouth texture and unique smoky, salty flavor. With its significance in Hawaiian cuisine and strong community traditions, kalua pig helps connect people both to each other and to the islands’ rich culture.