Food preparation in ancient times involved a variety of cooking methods including broiling, boiling and roasting. Though Hawaiians lacked metal utensils or ceramic containers, they used wooden and gourd bowls, stones and the drying power of the sun to great effect. In Hawaiian society, it was the task of the men to prepare food and meals.
Broiling food using hot coals (ko`ala) or hot ashes (pulehu) was a common way to cook if a meal was prepared out in the fields away from home or if the small amount of food being prepared did not warrant use of a larger earth oven, or imu. Food was cooked by being spread out flat on a level bed of coals, or it was warmed over or near a fire and periodically turned. Breadfruit and unripe bananas could be broiled this way in their skins. Other foods needed protection from burning and were wrapped in ti leaves (laulau). Fish could be wrapped in a leaf package called lawalu but a whole fish could also be broiled without being wrapped.
Hawaiians boiled foods but as their containers - made of wood or gourds - were susceptible to burning, the heat was introduced by dropping heated stones into the water-filled container rather than applying heat to the outside of the container. Food was placed in a bowl with water and the stones then added, or food and hot stones were placed in the container in alternating layers with the water added last. Many foods were cooked this way including greens (the tops of new taro leaves or the tender ends of sweet potato vines). In cooking fowl, hot stones were also placed inside the body cavity.
Roasting and steaming were achieved in the imu, or earthen oven. The process of cooking in the imu was called kalua. The oven consisted of a shallow pit dug in the ground, either in a covered, protected place or out in the open if the weather was fine. The pit was filled with kindling surrounded by larger pieces of wood with fist-sized stones arranged over the wood. Once the kindling was lit, the flames were fanned by blowing through a length of bamboo. Once the fire was spent, the hot rocks were spread to create an even floor and they were then covered with a layer of grass or leaves to prevent scorching of the food. Taro, breadfruit, sweet potatoes and other foods or food packages were arranged over the stones and covered with more leaves, preferably ti leaves. On top of all this, a last layer of old mats and kapa was laid. Once enough time had elapsed to cook the food, the mats and kapa were peeled off. The cooked food and hot rocks were removed, the cooks' protecting their bare hands by dipping them first in bowls of cold water. The food was placed in containers to cool and was served cold.
Cooking time in the imu depended on the type of food. Sweet potatoes cooked in two hours; taro took three to four hours. Chicken or fish was cooked in a laulau or ti leaf package or without any wrapping. For whole chickens or other fowl, special cone-shaped stones were heated and placed in the body cavity. Pig also was cooked whole with hot stones added to the abdominal and thoracic cavities, the cooking speeded by adding heat to both the inside and outside of the animal. Large pigs, however, were not cooked in an imu. After being dressed, their inside flesh was salted and hot rocks placed inside. The whole body was wrapped in old kapa and mats and placed on a poi board for 48 hours. After that time, the cooked meat was removed from the inside outward. Using salt in this process helped the meat stay preserved for a considerable time.
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