“Kalua Pork, or as many Polynesians call it Kalua Pig“, is a delicacy and classic Hawaiian food. Kalua means to cook underground. Therefore, traditional Hawaiian Kalua pig is cooked in an earth oven.
Making kalua pork doesn’t require much hands-on work, but with the right amount of seasoning and timing, it will turn out, as the Hawaiians say, ONOLICIOUS!
The traditional preparation calls for digging a hole in your backyard. Recognizing that this may be difficult for most city dwellers, we are including 3 other proven cooking methods including a slow cooker, instant pot, and conventional oven method.
To nail the authentic Hawaiian kalua pork recipe, the meat must be juicy, tender, smokey, and flavorful. It’s surely a delicious dish and makes you want more!
Kalua pork is served almost everywhere on the islands, and is included in Hawaiian Luaus, birthday and graduation parties, family potlucks, etc.
At any proper island get together you’re sure come across classic kalua pork with cabbage, Hawaiian mac salad, and rice. But there are many other dishes, sauces and drinks that go well with kalua pork. Don’t be afraid to serve it with any favorite dish. It’s that versatile!
In this blog, you’ll learn a simple kalua pork recipe that you can cook using any of 4 different methods.
Kalua pork, what does it mean in Hawaiian?
Kalua means to “cook underground in a pit” called an imu. Kalua pig has a deeper meaning in Hawaiian history. To take it back to its origin, pigs (pua’a in the Hawaiian language) are not native to the Hawaiian Islands.
Ancient Polynesians were the first to bring pigs to the islands. Centuries later, Captain James Cook brought a breed of European swine that traveled well aboard ships, followed by the introduction of various other European and Asian swine as new explorers travelled through the Pacific.
Ancient history records that Hawaiians never hunted pigs for either food or recreation because they believed the pig was their demigod (Three Hawaiian Legends Travelers May Want to Know) and our family guardian spirit, (‘Aumakua).
Because the pig child legend embodied a male god, when Hawaiians did begin to consume pig, women were forbidden (kapu) to join in. Only men were allowed to cook and indulge in this delicious delicacy.
Fast forward in history to 1819. King Kamehameha II removed ancient laws that forbade women from eating pigs, along with other items, such as bananas, taro, and coconuts because they were all foods representing the gods.
Today, kalua pig is a delicacy and favorite in the Hawaiian Islands.
What is kalua pork made of?
Traditional kalua pork is made of only 2 ingredients: pork butt roast and Hawaiian sea salt. It doesn’t need liquid smoke because the pig is cooked underground (imu) and wrapped with ti or banana leaves. Therefore, wood and leaves infused an earthly smokey flavor into the meat. However, if you are going to use a slow cooker, instant pot, or conventional oven, you can add liquid smoke to your pork butt roast and water to steam it.
Where do you buy the ingredients to make kalua pork?
You can buy all the ingredients from Costco or Walmart. Look for one that has a bit of fat included (but not gristle). If you need guidance, ask your local butcher to help you out. If there’s no pork butt then go with the boneless pork shoulders.
Nothing beats pork butt for its tenderness and juicy meat flavor but it’s always good to have an alternative. Can’t find Hawaiian sea salt? Go with the regular salt or one of the special designer salts in the spice section of your store. Liquid smoke comes in various brands. Do you have a favorite? Tell us which brand it is in the comment section below.
The rule of thumb is to use salt and liquid smoke sparingly. Too little or too much doesn’t work. Balance it works better.
Kalua Pork Starts with the same basic ingredients
Let’s keep it simple. You will use the same ingredients listed below with each of the 4 cooking methods: Traditional Hawaiian underground oven, slow cooker, instant pot, and conventional oven. Expect different temperatures, cooking times and slight differences in instructions.
Kalua Pork Ingredients
- 6 pounds of pork butt roast
- Approximately 1 tablespoon of Hawaiian red sea salt or salt of your choice (according to taste)
- 1 tablespoon of liquid smoke flavoring
- 3 cups of water (adjusted so assure that there is enough to cover the meat)
Method 1: Hawaiian Imu (earth oven)
Step 1: Dig a pit (lua) in the ground
Dig about 2 to 4 feet deep, making sure that the pit (lua) is large enough to hold both the pig and rocks. Place the excavated dirt next to the pit (lua). Later, it will be used to cover the imu.
Step 2: Build a hardwood fire
This is a process of building fire to heat up the stones. Use kiawe wood to start the fire and wait. Place hardwood inside the pit, then lava stones on top. Wait for about 2-3 hours for the rocks to reach the right temperature. The stones are retrieved from lava. Only collect stones which contain little moisture to avoid stone explosion from the steam generated from the heat. As the wood turns to charcoal, the imu stones will cave in on the hot coals.
Step 3: Prep the earth oven for the pig
Once the stones are extremely hot, spread the rocks with a stick or giant wooden tongs to form an even layer on top of the coals. Use banana leaves to dust out any charcoal debris. Place the seasoned pig on the hot rocks and cover it with ti or banana leaves.
A common culinary technique used today is to lay the pig on a metal rack and wrap it thoroughly with alumni foil. Don’t forget those banana and ti leaves though!
Step 4: Cover the earth oven (imu)
Cover the imu with plenty of banana leaves and excavated dirt. Again, with modern culinary techniques, wet burlap sacks are placed as a final cover for the entire imu.
The key is to keep all the steam inside for the pig to cook while infusing all the natural earth elements.
How to prepare pig
- Seasoning: Traditionally, Hawaiians smoke the whole pig. Only 2 ingredients are needed: salt and pig. The pig is cut flat after being cleaned and then rubbed all over with Hawaiian sea salt. No need for liquid smoke because the imu elements gives the earthy and smokey flavors.
- Wrapping: Hawaiians used ti or banana leaves to wrap the pig.
- Cooking Time: The pig is expected to cook in 7 – 8 hours. With a pit built specifically for the size of your roast, you only have the pig in the imu instead of more food like most Polynesians do. Polynesian people love to add taro, bananas, breadfruits, and luaus in their imu. But remember the larger the pit, the more food to add and the longer it takes to cook.
Three (3) other methods to cook Kalua Pork
Preparation Instructions for all methods
- Prepping the pork: When your pork butt is frozen solid thaw it out or leave it outside until it’s thawed. Trim some fat. Don’t trim the whole fat but leave some for flavor and to keep the pork moist.
- Seasoning: After prepping, place your 6 lbs. pork butt, the fat at the bottom in the slow cooker, instant pot, or full-size pan and rub it all over with 1 tablespoon of Hawaiian red salt. Pierce the pork using a butter knife. This allows the pork to fully cook. Add 1 tablespoon of liquid smoke for flavor. Add 3 cups of water to steam it.
- Wrapping: No need to wrap pork butt when cooking in the instant pot and slow cooker for easy recipes. When cooking in the conventional oven, use the half size pan (13” x 10 10.5” x 4”) or aluminum and cover it with foil.
Method 2: Slow cooker
Select low heat and let it cook for about 8 hours or leave it overnight. Once the pork is cooked, remove it from the slow cooker and put it in a half size pan. Shred the meat using a fork or the back of a spoon. Add some juice to moist the pork.
Method 3: Instant Pot
Select manual and set it for 90 minutes. Wait for an hour & 30 mins for the pork to cook plus 5 minutes to release the pressure. Remove the pork from the instant pot and place it in a half size pan. Shred the pork using a fork or the back of a spoon. Add some juice to moist the pork.
Method 4: Conventional oven
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Let it cook for 6 hours. Instead of removing the pork from the pan, scoop off some juice and leave some in the pan to moist the pork. Shred it using a folk or the back of a spoon.
What other spices can add flavor to the kalua pork recipe?
Everyone has different preferences. Some might prefer to stick with the basic salt and liquid smoke or just salt but others would like to add their favorite spices. So, elevate your flavors with some green onions, garlic, bay leaf and Hawaiian chili pepper. Whatever spices you are using, use it sparingly because too much spice might overpower the whole dish.
What to serve with kalua pork?
Kalua pork is served with plenty of dishes, sauces, and drinks. If you visit the Hawaiian Islands, you’ll always find the classic kalua pork combo that comes with kalua pork cooked in cabbage, rice, and Hawaiian mac salad. Not forgetting to grab your favorite drinks. Below is the list of some food, sauces, and drinks choices that go well with kalua pork:
- sweet & spicy chili sauce
- BBQ sauce
- tomato sauce
Leftover kalua pork
For leftover kalua pork, you can store the meat and juice in different zip log bags. Have them frozen.
Recipes for cooked pork
You can use kalua pork for homemade burgers, kalua pork with cabbage (classic Hawaiian dish), soup, chop suey, etc.
Alternative kalua recipe
Click here to enjoy a kalua turkey recipe, an interesting alternative kalua recipe.
Can kalua pork be cooked in a regular pot?
Yes, you can cook kalua in a regular pot but it will take a long time.
Where can I find banana or ti leaves?
Try your healthfood or ethnic markets (i.e., Hispanic or Asian)
Now you have it all! Choose the method you prefer and enjoy making some delicious kalua pork. Remember, you’re the cook, so you can add more or less salt and liquid smoke. You can also add your favorite spices and eat it with the food, drinks, and sauces listed above or your own.
Bio of Quinney Sua’ava, Blogger for the Polynesian Cultural Center
My family, culture, talent, and knowledge are the things I treasure the most. And the things I love to do are spending time with the people I love, traveling to different places, cooking Samoan food, singing and playing the ukelele, learning new things about life, and the list goes on! All of these contribute to my passion, experience and love for writing.