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Taste Traditional Hawaii
Cooking in an Imu
by Gail Jennings

Cooking in an imu
Cooking in an imu
Practically everyone who visits Oahu has done something most locals do regularly: eat a plate lunch. Something much rarer is the visitor who seeks out the foods that are generally recognized as traditional Hawaiian fare: poi, the cooked and pounded root of the taro plant which is revered as the staff of life in Hawaiian culture; squid luau, squid cooked with luau (taro tops) and coconut; na'au pua'a, pig intestines boiled with luau; kalua pig, a whole pig traditionally cooked in an imu (underground oven) and shredded; lau lau, delicious steamed packets of pork, pork fat, butterfish and luau wrapped in ti leaves and haupia, a simple coconut pudding that is so firm it can easily be cut into squares.

While it is not unusual to find kalua pork on many menus around town (it's a common choice at plate lunch spots), it's much harder to find some of the more traditional dishes. These dishes are labor intensive; some of the ingredients, particularly taro, are becoming harder to find and are comparatively expensive. With all of that being said, there are places for visitors to find traditional dishes outside of the tourist luau venue, where you're not likely to find more esoteric dishes like na'au pua'a and squid luau anyway.

A pig cooked in an imu
A pig cooked in an imu
Ono Hawaiian Foods is conveniently located close to Waikiki. The lines here can stretch down the block, so be prepared to wait during peak hours. Consider getting your food to go and taking it to the beach of Kapiolani Park. Strictly for take-out are the offerings at Haili's Hawaiian Foods in the Ward Farmers Market in Kakaako, which has one of the most extensive selections of Hawaiian dishes in the state. They are also very helpful in explaining the various dishes. Another good choice is Helena's Hawaiian Foods, which was designated as a James Beard Regional Classic Restaurant in 2000 and is particularly noted for its excellent pipi kaula, a marinated, smoked beef that is similar to beef jerky, but softer. If you are going out to the Leeward side, a visit to Highway Inn is a must. They have made everything the same way for 60 years, including wrapping all of the lau lau in-house, rather than buying a prepared product for resale. The haupia at Highway Inn is also noticeably better than most with a full-bodied coconut taste.

If the cultural anthropologists are right, one of the best ways to gain insight into a culture is to try its traditional foods. We hope that the adventurous amongst you will sample the foods of ancient Hawaii and gain a greater appreciation for what makes Hawaii such a special place.

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(Updated: 07/22/08 KR)

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