Many years ago, I read a thriller by Robert Ludlum (I think it was the Icarus Agenda). In it the author described something called a sand bake. This was a hot feast cooked overnight in a buried sand pit on hot coals and rocks. I just loved the mouth-watering description of that feast. But I lost my copy of the book and for a long time I forgot all about it.
I thought about it occasionally, over the years. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy a used copy of the book just to get the details of how to do a sand bake. (Even though the description in the book was very good.) But finally, I decided to do my research and find out exactly how to do a sand bake. I say sand bake, but it can just as easily be an earth bake. All you have to do is replace sand with soil… more or less.
There are a few versions and methods of doing a sand bake, and also of the food you can cook this way.
The Hawaiian version is called Kalua. It is cooked in an Imu or underground oven. It consists of a small pig or large turkey. To Hawaians, it is the basis for so-called Luau feasts. These sand bake feasts date back to the time when King Kamehameha II abolished the religious kapu (taboo). The kapu required men and women to eat separately. It also restricted what women (and men who were not royal or nobles) could eat. They were only allowed to eat foods that were considered “common” and not worthy of the nobility.
The background to all this goes back to May 1819, when King Kamehameha I died. (He was the man who had conquered the islands and established a kingdom there.) When he died, the Kingdom of Hawaii found itself plunged into mourning and grief. It was a tradition that in such periods of mourning for the king, the strict rules of Kapu were temporarily suspended. Thus, women were allowed to eat pork and bananas. Men ate dogmeat.
This period was known as Ai Noa or “free eating” because men and women were allowed to sit together at meals. Also, in that period, priests were not allowed to offer human sacrifices. Perhaps most significant of all, it was also a period of free love. People had consensual sex with partners other than their husbands or wives.
The son of King Kamehameha I, Liholiho, came to power amidst this turbulent atmosphere. It was a tradition that when a new king came to power, he would re-impose the laws of kapu. Indeed Liholiho tried to do just that. But his mother Keopuolani opposed him. She was supported by the other wives of his father. Foremost among these was Ka’ahumanu, the female tribal chief of Maui.
Faced with this “feminist” revolt, Liholiho fled in his canoe. He sailed around the western coastal waters of the Big Island. After a while, he returned, at peace with himself and in a fresh state of mind. He participated in a joint feast of dogmeat (i.e. women’s food) that had been prepared for him by the female chiefs. This symbolic act, signified the end of the kapu restrictions. Messengers were sent throughout the islands to tell the people that the kapu was never to be restored.
The old tradition was overthrown. But when an old tradition dies, a new one springs up in its place. So the revolution gave birth to the Lu’au parties. And the Kalua sand bake is the traditional food associated with the Lu’au celebrations.
Ok, that’s the history. But how is a Kalua sand bake prepared?
First you dig a three-foot deep pit in the dirt or sand about six feet length by four-foot width. It is this pit that is called the Imu. Then you create a wood fire in the pit. The best wood for this is sandalwood. (In an alternative version, you can create the fire nearby and just use it to heat rocks. See below.)
Next you place rocks in the pit. These will absorb the heat and retain it even after the flames have subsided. But these rocks must not come from a creek bed or watercourse. Those rocks are likely to explode. Ideally, they should be porous rocks. This is because the pores can release trapped moisture. If the rock is not porous, trapped water inside it builds up as steam until the steam has nowhere to go. That’s what causes such rocks to explode.
Give the rocks plenty of time to heat up. Then line the pit or trench with banana leaves (if you can get them) or other similar vegetation. Such vegetation may include nohono grass or coconut palm. The reason for using these leaves, is that you are going to be cooking with steam and not dry heat. The vegetation provides the steam. If you have access to banana stumps you can use them. First cut them into sections shorter than the dimensions of the pit. Then slice them lengthwise, into halves or quarters. Finally pound them with a large rock. This will break up the fibers and free the locked-in moisture that you need to create steam.
If you can’t get these more exotic Hawaiian plants, try fresh corn husks or soaked and dried corn husks. Other plants you can use are soaked and dried bamboo leaves, lettuce, thistle, watercress or cottonwood leaves. You can even try cabbage leaves. But some people advise against that because it gives the meat a cooked cabbage flavor. Not everyone likes that. But really, any non-toxic plant may be used in a sand bake.
While this is going on, someone else can rub rock salt or sea salt on the skin of the meat. If it’s a whole animal like a pig, lamb or large turkey, stuff the cavity with hot rocks. If it is a joint on the bone like a leg of lamb or side of beef, you can cover it with hot rocks instead. First put it on a layer of banana leaves, then cover it with more leaves. In the main version of the recipe, you also wrap the meat in ti leaves. If you can’t get them, just use more banana leaves.
Lay the wrapped meat on the banana leaves, or whatever leaves are resting on the hot rocks. Then cover the meat package and leaves with wet burlap. In some cases, wet cocoa sacks are used. This is not only to trap the heat, but also to provide additional moisture to stop the meat drying out.
Finally, shovel on a layer of sand or earth. In effect, you fill the trench or pit. But make sure you know where it is. Six to eight hours later, dig it all up (carefully). Test the meat to see if it is done. If it is ready, take it out and shred it. This shredding will ensure that all the melted fat is mixed in evenly with the meat and will give it a nice flavor.
If you want it to be really traditional Hawaian-style sand bake, serve the food on large banana leaves or in plaited baskets made of coconut fronds.
The Samoan umu is similar, but the earth oven is built above the ground. It is covered with a wooden roof to protect against the rain. But there are no walls, so the steam can escape. In the Samoan version, the fire is not made in the umu but rather nearby and is used to heat the rocks. Again, the rocks should be fire-tested to make sure they won’t explode. The rocks can be re-used until they lose their capacity to absorb and retain heat.
So now, if you’re adventurous, give it a try. And tell us about how your sand bake went.
And send in pictures!
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