Moving to Hawaii from the mainland was mostly an amazing adventure, but for a while I clung to a few life-long traditions, mostly those occurring between September and New Year's Day. According to my Ohio upbringing, Friday Night Lights over the football field in September requires crisp air, sweaters, and a booming drum line, and Thanksgiving includes waking up at 5:00am to roast and knead and bake until the house is filled with laughter, dirty dishes, and mouth watering aromas. So, how can you replicate that in Hawaii when it's 82 degrees outside and in, and just the thought of turning on the oven makes you sweat?
The imu is an underground pit lined with kindling, larger wood, and rocks. When the wood burns to coals and the rocks settle into the coals, green vegetation like banana plants, coconut palm leaves, and ti leaves are added to supply water and flavor, steaming the meat set on top. After the meat layer more vegetation and covering material, such as wet burlap, is added. Then the pit is covered with dirt to contain the steam.
BUY A TICKET
While you'll smell family imus burning in many neighborhoods throughout the holiday season, you don't need to dig one in your own yard to participate. Several school and community organizations host imu fundraisers during the holidays. Check the newspaper or ask around to see which may be hosting, and stop in to buy a ticket well in advance. For about $20 you can reserve space for a large foil roasting pan. The organizer will provide specific instructions, like these from Key Project, but I asked my neighbor, Terri, for help the first time. I admit I accidentally bought luau leaves instead of ti leaves on my first try. Terri straightened me out, picking green ti leaves from her yard to wrap around the meat, and bringing Hawaiian salt to season it. As you can see in the photo above, I cooked a small turkey and a pork roast in the same pan, divided by a foil barrier.
You'll drop off your pan the afternoon before Thanksgiving and the crew will cook it overnight. (Food safety guidelines be damned. Don't worry, you'll be fine.) Pick your turkey up on Thanksgiving morning and head home to put the finishing touches on the pumpkin pie before your guests arrive. I guarantee it'll be the best turkey you've ever eaten, and not just because someone else made it.
LONGING FOR HAWAII?
If you'd like to try the imu flavor, but your local grocer doesn't know ti from tea and the ground is frozen under a foot of snow, the geniuses in America's Test Kitchen have created the most similar recipe here. Green tea brings the grassy quality of the ti leaf.