Learn how Kailua High School athletes use a giant imu oven to steam hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys at once.
Long before a group of English Protestants set sail for the United States' East Coast to break away from the Church of England, Native Hawaiians already had an autumn festival of thanks in place.
While it was somewhat similar to the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth during the fall of 1621, Makahiki was a three-to-four month celebration honoring the return of Lono, the Hawaiian god of agriculture and peace.
Hawaii’s Thanksgiving Traditions
Today, Thanksgiving in Hawaii continues to beat to a different drum, with its own distinctive menus and traditions that include the luau-style steaming of Thanksgiving turkeys, pork butt, roast or ham in underground imu ovens. Perhaps no organization approaches this Hawaiian cooking tradition on such a grand scale as Windward Oahu’s Kailua High School.
In its 22nd year, Kailua High School’s Imu Roast fundraiser finds dozens of student athletes, teachers, staff members, alumni and volunteers displaying the ultimate teamwork as they dig the massive underground oven, gather some 1,000 pounds of kiawe wood for the fire, harvest porous rocks, and bring both banana and ti leaves into the process.
For a modest $25 per pan, those ordering “imu space” weeks in advance drop off their foil-wrapped holiday specialties on Wednesday afternoon. On Thanksgiving morning, they return for their “no stress” Hawaiian Thanksgiving holiday meal that has been cooked to perfection under the imu crew’s watchful eyes during a 12-hour process.
Imu preparation and cooking aside, these devoted individuals must also carefully organize the pans on tables for convenient pick-up on Thanksgiving morning.
Digging Into Imu Culture
Imu preparation nods to the tradition of cooking food in a temporary underground pit. Throughout Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia and even the Americas, traditional underground ovens have been utilized for centuries to cook and steam food.
Today, many communities still use cooking pits for ceremonial or celebratory occasions, including the indigenous Fijian lovo, Maori hangi, Mexican barbacoa, and New England clam bake.
The Hawaiian imu was the easiest way to cook large quantities of food quickly and efficiently for Native Hawaiians. Due to time and labor investments required for preparation, most earth oven cooking was reserved for festivities, religious ceremonies, and group meals.
With the Hawaiian imu, the roasting process is referred to as “kalua,” which translates as "to cook in an underground oven." If you’ve ever been to a Hawaiian luau, you’ve likely seen the process and tasted the delicious results.
Instead of digging a hole to cook a single pig, however, Kailua High School’s ambitious fundraising crew super sizes the oven to steam literally hundreds of Thanksgiving meals at a time. Accompanying the centerpiece main dish is a bounty of sides like Okinawan sweet potatoes, sausage stuffing, raw fish, and signature Hawaii starches like macaroni salad.
How it works
Want to put a Hawaiian twist on your own feast? Here's how they do it at Kailua High School. First check with your local fire department regarding any restrictions before you try this at home. Always remember to avoid stuffing turkeys and to have a water hose ready to wet down the tarps after you load it.
Once the rocks are red hot and the fire has burned down (roughly five hours), spread the rocks out evenly across the pit floor.