Kalua pig is a Hawaiian dish which is produced by slowly roasting a pig in an underground pit. Traditional kalua pig is seasoned only with salt, allowing the flavors of the pig and the vegetation it is buried with to mingle, creating a very rich, smoky flavor which many people find very enjoyable. Some people also use the term “kalua pig” to refer to any sort of roasted pig, whether or not the pig is prepared in a traditional underground oven.
To make the dish in the traditional Hawaiian way, a whole pig is rubbed down with salt while a hole is dug and lined with extremely hot rocks and layers of vegetation, like banana and tea leaves. The pig is wrapped in vegetation and lowered into the hole, and then the entire pig is buried for five or more hours to slowly roast it. When the pig has finished roasting, it is uncovered, removed, and served. The meat tends to be very tender and juicy, thanks to the wrapping of vegetation which keeps the pig moist during the cooking process.
The underground oven used to make kalua pig is known as an imu, and this cooking technique can be found in many parts of the South Pacific. It is particularly associated with the Hawaiian luau, a large and festive party which may feature an assortment of foods along with music and dancing. Since the guest list at a luau is often large, a whole pig can be a useful party staple, ensuring that everyone gets enough to eat at the party.
Since roasting a whole pig is a lot of work and it generates a lot of meat, some people like to make the dish using just a section, like a pork shoulder, instead of the whole pig. If an imu is deemed too much work, the pig may be roasted in an oven or cooked in a crockpot to get the desired slow-cooked flavor. When kalua pig is not made in an imu, many people like to add liquid smoke, to hint at the flavor which would develop with pit roasting.
You may also hear kalua pig referred to as kalua pua'a in Hawaii, a term which translates as “pit roasted pig.” In addition to pig, other foods can be prepared in an imu, including fish, and other cultures have similar cooking techniques which are used to prepare things like mechoui, a North African lamb dish. While preparation of these dishes takes time because of the slow cooking, some consumers feel that the extra time is well worth it, when one considers the resulting flavor.