Hawaiian Imu Turkeys - Digging Into Hawaii’s Thanksgiving Tradition

Hawaiian Imu Turkeys - Digging Into Hawaii’s Thanksgiving Tradition

Posted by Hawaiian Isles on 11/8/2018 to Best of Hawaii
Hawaiian Imu Turkeys - Digging Into Hawaii’s Thanksgiving Tradition
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.

Dig a pit 2-4 feet deep and at least 4 feet wide. The pit at Kailua High School is purpose built and much larger. Fill the base with kindling (kiawe or mesquite wood is highly recommended) Top the wood with round, weathered, and porous stones and then light the fire.

Get the stones nice and hot.

Prepare the food. Space is limited to 400 trays this year. Yes… 400! 

Stones are ready for cooking!
Once the rocks are red hot and the fire has burned down (roughly five hours), spread the rocks out evenly across the pit floor.

Cover the hot stones.
Cover the pit with layers of shredded banana tree stalks/leaves, ti leaves or grass to prevent burning the food.

Pile on the food for cooking.
Hundreds of aluminum pans full of turkeys, pork, sausages, laulau, and other foods are piled up in layers on top of the imu.

Place soaked canvas and leaves over the imu so it can steam in.
To keep steam in, cover with more banana leaves, wet burlap bags or canvas.

Prep work is done. Now it just needs to cook.
The entire pile is covered with a large plastic tarp. The edges of the tarp are weighed down with dirt to help keep heat in and other things out!

Roast overnight for 8-12 hours and enjoy!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Special Mahalo to Hinano on Flickr for giving us permission to use your pictures!

We hope you enjoyed our little taste of Aloha! If you ever have any questions or story ideas, please e-mail us at [email protected]!


Our Aloha-filled holiday flavors are only around for a limited time. Get them while supplies last!

Each limited edition holiday flavor is a Kona blend containing at least 10% Kona coffee. Each are medium-roasted, all-purpose grind and come in our special holiday packaging.