Cooking food in the ground is a primal method that has been kept alive around the world in various forms, ranging from the Chilean curanto, Samoan umu, Fijian lovo and Maori hāngi, to the New England clam bake, just to name a few. While primordial techniques may differ amongst cultures, in general they commonly require very basic materials, starting with a hole in the ground, smoldering embers or hot volcanic soil, and of course, the animal of choice.
In Peru, we refer to this technique as pachamanca, a Quechuan word that translates to “earth oven”, with ritualistic origins dating back to well before the Inca civilization. Growing up, I remember that during certain festivities the men would dig a hole in the ground that was large enough to fit the chosen beast, before lowering it into the makeshift earth-oven. Around dusk, once the meat, root vegetables, and Andean corn were cooked, the unearthing would take place and then the pitmaster would slowly tear off pieces from the carcass while the crowd gleefully gathered around with beer in hand.
Over the years I’ve roasted pigs in a variety of ways, and when my friend Jesse invited me to give him a hand with a kālua-style roast for an upcoming party, there was zero hesitation from my part. It was a late Thursday night and on my way back home from a business trip, so after touching down I headed straight to his place to get the preparation under way.
I set my luggage aside, grabbed a beer, and we got right to work. Jesse had acquired a 70 lb. piglet, enough to feed all the guests at his party the following day. It would take all night to slowly cook the meat, and we happily powered through until the task was complete.
Cooking a Kālua pig, otherwise known as pua’a, is not that much different from the aforementioned pachamanca, with banana leaves used in both variations (or ti leaves in the islander version). The primary difference between the styles is the seasoning and the type of meat used for the event. For example, in the Andes is not uncommon to use guinea pig, lamb, chicken, goat—or my favorite— alpaca.
Jesse already had a large pit with surrounding brick walls (perfect for maintaining and radiating heat), so we decided to forego digging a hole, and instead we concentrated on ways to layer the animal with burlap and banana leaves, both to protect the meat and to retain as much heat as possible.
THE pig ROAST
The large circular brick fire pit was ideal for creating coals and keeping a steady temperature; however, if you’re cooking right in the ground, dig a large enough hole to fit the first tier of coals, the pig, and the additional layers mentioned in the steps below.
- 2 cups of sea salt. Ideally Alaea Red Hawaiian coarse sea salt.
- ½ cup of ground white pepper
- ½ cup of granulated onion
- ½ cup of granulated garlic
- Vegetable or canola oil
- 12 pumice volcanic stones
- Banana leaves
- 2 cups of mesquite chips
- About 3-4 burlap sacks
- Chicken wire
- 1 large tarp
- Enough soil for coverage
Tip: You can also rub the pig with fresh garlic cloves instead of using granulated garlic.
STEP 1: FIRE IT UP!
The first thing we did was to build a fierce fire, large enough to generate a copious amount of embers upon settling down. Inside the pit, we also placed volcanic pumice stones around the outside of the fire to cook with. More on this at a later step.
STEP 2: SEASONING THE BEAST
As the coals are starting to render down (~1 to 1.5 hours in), one of us rinsed, cleaned and dried off the exterior of the pig. After applying a thin layer of vegetable or canola oil on the skin for the spices to adhere to, I seasoned it with a simple mix of sea salt, white pepper, granulated onion and garlic, all mixed together prior to application.
In Kauaʻi only local sea salt is used to season the pig, which is a basic yet tried and proven method, especially when the meat is of high quality.
STEP 3: THE WRAP
Once the suckling pig was rubbed with the spices all throughout (including the interior cavity) we placed about two hot pumice stones right inside. This works well for two reasons: to reduce the amount of bacteria that might accumulate over the long and slow steam roast, and to cook the meat from the inside in addition to the outside.
Tip: As in our case, a pig this small does not necessarily need the hot stones inside the cavity, as supposed to a larger pig that requires longer time to cook.
At this point, the pig was ready to go in the pit, but prior to dropping it in, we wrapped the whole carcass with banana leaves, which impart some flavor as well as slowly releasing moisture over time. In order to pack the leaves neatly around the pig, we wrapped the entire thing in chicken wire before lowering it in.
STEP 4: COVERING IT UP
Traditionally, islanders use the locally accessible ironwoood to create a subtle smoke, but in our case we threw in some soaked mesquite chips into the pit. Mesquite wood, or commonly known as kiawe, can also used in lū‘au cooking in addition to ironwood.
Since direct exposure to the incandescent coals would cook the pig too quickly, we added a light layer of soil on top of the embers and packed it down a bit. There were also about ten or so blazing hot pumice stones inside the pit, which helped to maintain a steady source of heat during the long cook.
After adding the mesquite chips, we layered in a bed of lightly moistened banana leaves. At this point we brought the pork down and covered it with a second layer of leaves and a few sacks of burlap to help contain the steady steam coming from the leaves. The last step required placing a tarp on top of the soil to trap in moisture, smoke, and heat.
Tip: Pumice is the best type of stone for cooking in the earth with or inside a roasting pit given its porous make up. The stone is riddled with holes, which allow it to withstand higher temperatures and the pressure that comes with the heat without shattering. Using non-volcanic stones can be a hazard as some stones have been known to explode half way through the roast.
STEP 5: roasting the pig
At around the 2 AM mark, we were finally ready to add the tarp before patting it down with some soil. The pig would cook for approximately sixteen hours until it was properly done throughout.
The next day, as pitmaster ritual follows, we tried the first pieces of meat once we unwrapped the pork.
The meat was flavorful, succulent, and falling off the bone. The most gratifying part of the experience was being able to taste every section of the pork, which individually had their own subtle and distinct flavors and textures; from the belly, to the back, and jowl, which was by far the tastiest in my opinion.
Back in Kauaʻi…
We had the pleasure to visit Kauaʻi earlier in the year where we had the opportunity to experience an indoor lū‘au at the well-known Tahiti Nui restaurant in Hanalei. There, I had the chance to catch up with the cooks and proprietors of the establishment, the Marston Brothers, with family roots hailing originally from Tahiti.
The brothers were extremely welcoming and ready to answer any question I had to validate our cooking methods. I was glad to know that after running them through our process described above, I received affirmative shakas with accompanying head nods.
While staying in the North Shore of the island, we took in a couple of day-hikes including a trek to Hanakapiai beach, nestled in the Nā Pali coast and accessible via the amazing Kalalau trail. The hike is lined with luscious greenery and breathtaking views, including many humpback whales not far from the shore.
While the girls went on a zipline adventure, the boys went deep sea fishing for the day. We didn’t break any records, but we did manage to reel in some beautiful yellow fin and aku—or skipkjack—tunas, as well as a massive barracuda.
Bonus: Roadside grilled Huli-Huli chicken
It seemed like everywhere we visited throughout Kauai, there were feral chickens by the side of the road. In 1992, Hurricane Iniki’s force leveled many coops and farms around the island, which is why the fowl population is now in the thousands.
To celebrate one of my favorite dishes, I’ve added my version of the beloved huli-huli chicken, found in many BBQ places around the Garden Island.
Huli-huli stands for “turn-turn” and it’s comprised of Asian-inspired ingredients finished off with a well-balanced sauce made up of acidic, sweet, and salty flavors mopped right on the chicken.
- • 2 tbsp granulated onion
- • A few fresh ginger root chunks
- • 5 garlic cloves
- • 2 bay leaves
- • 2 tbsp black peppercorns
- • ½ cup kosher salt
- • ¼ cup brown sugar
- • 2 tbsp black pepper
- • 2 tbsp sweet or smoked paprika
- • 2 tbsp granulated onion
- • 1 tbsp ground ginger
- • 2 tbsp granulated garlic
- • 1 tbsp cayenne
- • 1 tbsp cumin powder (optional)
- • 2 tbsp salt
- • 1 tbsp brown sugar
- • 2 tbsp vegetable or coconut oil
- • 1 cup of low sodium soy sauce
- • 1 cup of pineapple juice
- • 1/2 cup ketchup
- • 2 tbsp sriracha
- • 2 tbsp fish sauce
- • 2 tbsp sugar
- • ¼ cup of apple cider vinegar
- • 2 fresh gloves of garlic
- • 1 onion, chopped in half
- • A few fresh ginger root chunks
- • A few dashes of bourbon
- First, spatchcock the chicken and place inside the fridge.
- Add all the ingredients in the bowl with water and mix until they're all dissolved. Adding them in warm water helps to mix everything more easily.
- Let the brine sit in the fridge until the water comes to a cold enough temperature. About 45 minutes.
- Once the water has cooled, place the chicken halves in the liquid mixture until submerged and let it brine for at least 5 hours to overnight.
- Once the chicken is brined, pat dry, and remove any ingredients that might stick to the skin.
- Drizzle the oil and rub the chicken until it's all coated properly.
- Sprinkle the rub all over the meat.
- Place all the ingredients in a pot and simmer for about 45 minutes until the sauce thickens.
- Just before the sauce is done, remove the onion, garlic, and ginger.
- During the reduction, taste the sauce to make sure the acidity, saltiness and sweetness are well balanced.
- Create a 2-zone fire in the grill and place the chicken on the indirect side of the grill with the lid closed and vents open. About 20 minutes in, mop both sides of the chicken with the huli-huli sauce and continue to mop from time to time before it's done.
- Huli it (turn it) on a regular basis since the sugar in the sauce could blacken the exterior of the meat.
- One could also forego on the rub and instead marinade the chicken with the sauce once it cools down.
- If marinading with the huli-huli sauce, it can also be used to mop the chicken with come grilling time.
- At the 150°F temperature mark, stop basting the meat with the marinade sauce to avoid contaminating the cooked meat with raw juices from the marinade.