Hawaiian Cuisine — Kalua Pig

Hawaiian cuisine is a result of almost exclusively imported and introduced products, ingredients, and traditions.  From the fourth century to today, influences from Polynesian, American, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Korean immigrants have shaped the Hawaiian table into the unique cuisine it is today.

Hawaii quick facts:

  • Capital: Honolulu
  • Population: 1,404,054 (2013 estimate)
  • Notable Hawaiians: King Kamehameha I, Don Ho, Bruno Mars, Tia Carrere, Jason Gesser

The first Hawaiians were Polynesian settlers.  At the time of their arrival, the Hawaiian islands had little to offer for food, with almost no edible plants to be found.  The Polynesians, luckily for them, had packed their outrigger canoes with foodstuffs for planting, like taro, sweet potatoes, yams, coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, and sugarcane.  Combined with local fish (and pineapples, of course), these are the ingredients we think of when we imagine Hawaiian food today.

More than any one particular dish, the most famous Hawaiian food tradition is probably that of the luau.  Various side dishes like lomi salmon, chicken long rice, and ALWAYS poi (mashed taro root; it’s that purple stuff) accompany the centerpiece of any luau: the Hawaiian roast kalua pig.  Kalua pig is a process; first thing in the morning a large hole is dug into the sand.  In the hole a bonfire is started and allowed to burn down to coals.  Meanwhile, a whole pig is rubbed in Hawaiian sea salt and wrapped in banana or ti leaves and buried with the coals in the sand.  By dinnertime the pig is fall-apart tender and ready to shred and serve.

Obviously, we couldn’t make a real kalua pig.  First, there are no local beaches that allow fires.  Second, and most important, a whole pig is just too much for the two of us to eat.  Luckily, clever cooks have devised ways to make a kalua pig-style pork roast in a regular oven.  Pork shoulder rubbed with liquid smoke and sprinkled with sea salt is wrapped in banana leaves and foil and roasted very slowly until it falls apart.  Always eager to eat a pork shoulder, we couldn’t wait to try.

Oven-roasted kalua pig

adapted from The Tasty Island

SERVES 4 TO 6

  • 1 2 lb boneless pork shoulder roast (we used boneless because it was what we had in the freezer; bone-in is always better)
  • 3 frozen banana leaves, thawed (left over from our Cambodian amok trei recipe)
  • 2 tsp liquid smoke
  • 1 1/2 Tbs kosher salt (if you can get a hold of Hawaiian sea salt, all the better)

First, we rinsed our pork shoulder and patted it dry with paper towels:

porkshoulder
See that blue “thermometer” that always comes preinserted in a pork roast? You want to take that out. You will never, ever, use it.

Since the pork was dry, it was easy to get the liquid smoke to stick when it was drizzled on:

liquidsmokepouredonpork

Rubbing with our hands, the liquid smoke was spread to cover the pork shoulder.  We advise using gloves for this process, since it turns out that bare-hand liquid smoke contact will make a person smell like a campfire for a day or two no matter how much hand washing happens.  Now moistened with the liquid smoke, the salt readily adhered when sprinkled on and the roast was transferred onto the first banana leaf:

porksaltedonbanaleaf

As neatly and snugly as possible, the pork shoulder was rolled into the banana leaf into a bundle:

porkwrappedinbananaleafonce
Small tears like this are fine; there are two more banana leaves and a few layers of foil still to come.

The pork bundle was placed over the next banana leaf, this time in the opposite direction relative to the grain of the banana leaf:

kaluaporkreadytowrapagain

Now, the pork was wrapped end-over-end.  This bundle was wrapped in the last banana leaf, again changing orientation to the grain:

kaluapigwrapped

The leaves were just a bit too small to wrap the ends in any useful way with the last layer, but we knew we could seal them using the foil.  First, the bundle was placed on a sheet of foil and wrapped just like with the banana leaves, in three pieces of alternating direction, then sealed tightly:

kaluapigwrappedinfoil

The pork package was placed in a roasting pan with a tight-fitting lid and about a cup of water:

kaluapigreadytoroast

…and covered and placed into a preheated 275 degree oven.  After about three-and-a-half hours the water was nearly gone, so a bit more was added and the pan was resealed and returned to the oven.  After a total of about six-and-a-half hours, we knew the pork would be done.  To test, we poked it with a finger (which was still incredibly hot and a little burn-y) and noticed that the meat inside yielded without much resistance:

testingdonenesskaluapig

The foil bundle was removed from the oven and left to rest over a bowl while we prepared the rest of the meal.

After an hour or so, we were ready to break open the package.  By this time the banana leaves had filled our kitchen with a black tea-like aroma.  Tearing open the foil carefully, we discovered that the leaves had darkened and softened considerably:

kaluapigfoilunwrapped

Opening the banana leaves,the pork inside was already falling apart and had even browned a little on the outside:

kaluapigunwrapped

The pork was transferred back to the roasting pan, where it was shredded with two forks:

kaluapigshredded

The liquid that had collected in the pouch was dark and aromatic and seemed like it would dress the shredded pork nicely:

kaluapigliquid

About a tablespoon or two of the roasting juices were added back to the pork, which was tossed to coat.  Served with our Spam musubi and a chopped salad we came up with made from peppers, zucchini, and crushed pineapple, our Hawaiian dinner was beautiful and smelled fantastic:

hawaiian food plated

We have tried a few variations on the slow-roasted pork shoulder, but none match the flavor brought by the banana leaf.  Nothing really tastes like banana leaf; the best we can say is that it is a little like black tea with a hint of banana, but without being sweet or bitter.  Considering how easy this was to prepare, we would jump at the chance to make it again.

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