Hawaiian Luau! Oven-Roasted Kalua Pork and Lomi Lomi Salmon

Sunday, September 22, 2013

I like Hawaiian food for many reasons. It is a meld of many types of cuisines, (Polynesian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, American, Portuguese, and more), many of which I like to cook. Hawaiian food also has retro and vintage flair; American soldiers brought stories back about Polynesia and the South Pacific when they returned home after WWII and the commercial airline industry made travel more accessible, so tiki became in style in the mid-century. The bright colored (and often over-the-top) Hawaiian prints and rum drinks make tiki fun, and the tropical climate, flowers, and warm waters are something to long for. And it makes me reminisce about relaxation, a slow-paced small town life, and vacations (particularly the vacation that my parents surprised my sister and I with as a Christmas present years ago and the vacation that William and I took in Hawaii about a year ago).

Recipe: Modified from "Oven-Roasted Kalua Pig & Cabbage" from TastyIslandHawaii.com
Rating: Great!
Status: Made twice.
Yield: 3-2/3 pounds pork shoulder with the bone-in will serves 6 to 8 with rice and cabbage.

Kalua literally means "to cook in an underground oven" in Hawaiian (wiki). It is a traditional Hawaiian cooking method which uses an imu, a type of underground oven made from a dirt pit which is lined with hot rocks to provide heat. Meat, fish, and vegetables are added, often salted and wrapped in wet ti leaves or banana leaves, and then the imu is covered with wet burlap and a layer of soil to retain heat. The imu cooks by slowly roasting and steaming for several hours. Real Kalua pig is a whole pig cooked in an imu but you can make a similar version in your oven using pork shoulder. It won't have the same smokey flavor but it will be quite tasty. The best part of the recipe for oven-roasted kalua pig is that it only needs a few ingredients and it is very easy.

You will need a large roasting pan which can fit a large cut of pork shoulder, hold several cups of liquid, and be covered tightly with aluminum foil. (I used a half-sized hotel pan). A piece of bone-in pork shoulder with a fat cap on one side that is 3-2/3 to 5 pounds (or larger if it fits in your roasting pan) is perfect (see the pictures in "Oven-Roasted Kalua Pig & Cabbage" from TastyIslandHawaii.com); the fat will partially melt while the pork cooks and flavor the meat. The pork will give off liquid as it cooks, so you need to use a roasting pan which is large enough to hold several cups of liquid.

The pork is rubbed with salt, preferably alaea sea salt (wiki), which is sea salt mixed with alaea (baked Hawaiian red clay). Alaea sea salt is traditionally used in kalua pork, but you can substitute nearly any type of the salt. The exact amount of salt doesn't matter; you can simply use enough salt to season the meat, but if you want an estimate of how much salt to use, substitute an equal weight of salt (not an equal volume) since types of salt differ in how salty they are by volume due to the salt crystal shape and grain size (see here). For example, for 3-2/3 pounds of meat you could replace 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp (26 g) medium-grained Alaea Hawaiian salt with 2 Tbsp 1 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt since it also weighs 26 grams.

Many recipes for oven roasted kalua pork use liquid smoke to mimic the smokey taste that the pig gets when cooked in an imu but I left out the liquid smoke since I wanted a natural flavor. See "Oven-Roasted Kalua Pig & Cabbage" from TastyIslandHawaii.com if you would like instructions on how to use liquid smoke.

The pork is wrapped in either a banana leaf or several ti leaves and then in aluminum foil, and placed in a tightly closed container with some water to provide steam, and cooked at a very low temperature (220F) for 8 to 10 hours in order to make it meltingly soft. Since it cooks for many hours, one easy way to cook this dish is to start before you go to sleep and then finish the next morning when you wake up. Banana leaves may be easier to find (I used banana); banana leaves are often available in the frozen section of Southeast Asian grocery stores; I have read that ti leaves can be ordered from florists, though I haven't personally tried this. The leaves infuse the meat with a subtle flavor, but they are optional, you can just use aluminum foil if you like. The meat is served shredded, to allow the melted fat to mix with the meat and to make a uniform consistency and flavor (wiki).

Since kalua pork needs to be cooked for many hours, this dish needs to be made ahead of time; luckily this dish reheats well, so it can even be made a day in advance.

  • pork shoulder, 3-2/3 to 5 pounds (or larger if it fits in your roasting pan), bone-in is preferable
  • alaea Hawaiian salt, use about 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp (26 g) medium-grained alaea Hawaiian salt for 3-2/3 pounds of meat to 2 Tbsp for larger pieces of meat, or substitute an equal weight of another type of salt
  • 1 banana leaf
  • (optional) 1 small green cabbage if serving kaula pork with cabbage
  • (optional) serve with freshly cooked Japanese rice
Special Equipment:
  • aluminum foil
  • large roasting pan large enough to fit the meat, hold at least 4 cups of liquid, and be covered with a lid of aluminum foil.

Preheat oven to 220F.

Wash the banana leaf and rinse the meat. Shake off the excess water, but do not completely dry it since the moisture will keep the meat moist. Salt the meat on all sides. Note which side is the fatty side--you want to roast it with the fatty side up so that the fat melts down onto the meat. Wrap the meat in the banana leaf (banana leaves can be large; mine encircled the meat about 3 times) and then wrap tightly in aluminum foil, completely enclosing the meat. It is okay to refrigerate the salted and wrapped meat overnight if you want to wait to cook it.

Place the wrapped meat, fatty side up, in the roasting container or a heavy pot large enough to fit the pork with a tight fitting lid and pour in 2 cups of water. The water will surround the bottom of the meat. Cover the container tightly with aluminum foil (use several layers) or the lid. An imu cooks by roasting and steaming; the water and the tight cover on the pan mimics the imu's steam and moisture.

Cook at 220 F for 8 to 10 hours. Then turn off the heat and without opening the oven, let the meat sit in oven with the heat off for 1 to 2 hours longer, while it cools down.

Now you have a choice. You can either shred the pork when it is warm or you can refrigerate it (still wrapped in aluminum foil) before you shred it. The advantage of refrigerating it is 1) you can shred the meat whenever it is convenient for you 2) the rendered fat will solidify and this will allow you to control exactly how fatty tasting the dish is (though you should keep much of the fat--without this the pork will be dry and bland). If refrigerating, then drain the juice into a container and put the pork (still wrapped in aluminum foil) into another container; unroll a little corner of the wrappings and check that the pork is soft enough to shred easily, and then rewrap the pork. If not, then the pork needs to be cooked longer. Once refrigerated, the rendered fat will solidify on top of the liquids; spoon the fat off and reserve it for use in heating up the pork.

Reserve the liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan; there should be several cups since the pork gives off liquid as it cooks. If you refrigerated the dish, then heat the juices until simmering. Unwrap the pork and discard the banana leaf and aluminum foil.

Next you will shred the meat and then adjust the salt and fat to taste. The most common mistake is making the dish too salty so taste carefully as you season it. Another next common mistake is including too little fat. You can remove large pockets of fat but be sure to keep some fat--it has lots of flavor. Don't be afraid of leaving in fat; without it the meat will be dry and dull tasting.

Use two forks to shred the meat. It should shred easily (if not then it needs to be cooked for longer).

Flavor the shredded kalua pork, to taste, with the pork juices. If you refrigerated the meat, then heat the meat, some of the rendered fat, and perhaps some of the fatty pieces of meat and add the hot juices to taste; otherwise if you just finished cooking, then everything should still be warm or hot and you can simply mix everything together to taste. The juices are very salty so don't add all of it (if for some reason they aren't salty enough to flavor the pork, then you can also use additional salt). You should add the juices until it tastes good to you, when can detect the salty flavor but it isn't over salted. If you plan to eat the pork over multiple days and feel unsure about how much salt to use, you can slightly under salt it now, and use the excess juices to finish salting it in small portions when it is rewarmed.

Reserve the excess salty juices, rendered fat, and solid fat. They are very flavorful; you can use them to reheat the pork, to make kalua pork with cabbage (recipe below), or even in other recipes.

Kalua Pork is a good party food. It also keeps for several days and reheats well, so if you have time to make it ahead of time, it can make several great weeknight meals.

It also freezes well; place individual or meal sized proportions of the shredded and seasoned pork (with no cabbage) in ziplock bags or storage containers. Freeze extra salty juices in small ziplock bags or containers in case you need to more for seasoning or to make kalua pork and cabbage. Defrost the pork before stir-frying to reheat (the frozen juices can simply be heated in a small pan to melt).

Serving Suggestions: You can serve this on its own or with Japanese white rice. In Hawaii, they often use an ice cream scoop to measure and scoop out the rice--"plate lunches" often come with "two scoops of rice" (wiki) . You can also serve it on soft rolls (such as hamburger, potato, or Hawaiian rolls) as a sandwich. You can also sauté it with cabbage (see below).

I like kalua pork best when sautéed with cabbage, which how I had it at Local Food in Lahaina (yelp), which had the best kalua pork that I had in Maui (most other versions I tried in Maui were way too salty). I like the contrast of crunchy cabbage against the pork, and the cabbage also offsets the saltiness and fattiness of the pork. This is also a great usage of leftover kalua pork.

To make Kaula Pork and Cabbage:

Cut cabbage into strips about inch wide and two inches long.

Heat a pan or large wok on medium to medium-high. Add the prepared shredded kaula pork (that you made in the recipe above). It should have enough fat to grease the pan; if not use some reserved solid fat or reserved rendered fat to oil the pan (this also adds flavor). Cook stirring frequently until the pork shreds become somewhat separated (there will still be some clumps) and are heated through.

Add some chopped cabbage (the amount depends on how much meat you have and what you want the meat to veggie ratio to be) and some of the reserved salty juices, to salt the cabbage and meat to taste. There should be just enough liquid to steam the cabbage for a few minutes (it should lightly coat the pan); you can add water if the reserved juices are too salty to provide enough liquid.

Cover the pan with a lid in order to steam the cabbage, stirring occasionally (add more liquid if necessary). After a few minutes the cabbage will have wilted, but it should still have some bite to it (the cabbage should be "al dente"). Uncover and stir. Taste and add more of the reserved juices if it isn't salty enough. Cook a minute or two more if there is still liquid in the pan to mostly dry the juices. The dish is done when most of the liquid has evaporated, the pork is warm, the cabbage is wilted but still has bite, and it tastes salty and fatty enough.

Serve with rice.

Recipe: Modified from "Capt. Mike's Lomi Lomi Salmon" from FishMaui.com
Rating: Great!
Status: Made once.
Yield: Makes about 1-1/2 cups, which should serves 3 to 4 as an appetizer (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup per person).

Even though salmon don't swim close enough to Hawaii to be caught in its surrounding waters, early European explorers, missionaries, whalers, and the armed forces exposed Hawaiians to salt salmon (and many other types of salted, dried, or canned meats, such as Spam). It has become so integrated into Hawaiian cuisine that lomi lomi is a traditional luau (wiki) dish.

The salt salmon needs to be made at least 1 day ahead, so start this recipe a day before you want to serve it.

Food Safety:

Use only very fresh high quality salmon, preferably sashimi/sushi quality, since the raw salmon is only lightly cured (see here for more information about what types of salmon can be eaten raw and also this wikipedia article on raw fish). I used sushi salmon (from Super Mira Market in San Francisco) to ensure that it was safe to eat raw because it has been commercially deep frozen to remove any parasites (home freezers are not cold enough), very fresh, and had a great texture. If you can't find sushi salmon, then you could consider using farmed salmon but don't use wild salmon. Since wild salmon swims in fresh water, it can pick up parasites and should only be eaten fully cooked. The diet of farmed salmon is controlled, so it is less likely to have parasites.

  • 1/2 lbs sushi salmon
  • 1/2 Tbsp alaea Hawaiian salt (10 g), or substitute 1 Tbsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Iodized table salt cannot be used.
  • 1 small tomato, preferably a flavorful meaty type since it will be deseeded, such as Early Girl.
  • 1/4 to 1/2 of a small sweet onion, preferably a Maui onion
  • 1 green onion, thinly minced
  • (optional) taro chips, or substitute a different type of compatible crisps or chips

Make the salt salmon 1 day ahead:

Cut the salmon into pieces no thicker than 1/2 inch. Mix with 1/2 Tbsp alaea Hawaiian salt. Layer the salmon in a wide container with a tight fitting lid; the pieces can be overlapping or stacked in a thin layer. Cover with plastic wrap and then cover tightly with the lid. Refrigerate for 24 hours or up to 3 days (I did 24 hours). A longer salting period will result in a saltier and more heavily cured fish, and more water will be pulled out of the salmon.

Mix the lomi lomi:

Thoroughly rinse the excess salt off the salmon. Cut off a small piece of the salmon and taste it. It will be salty, but if it is too salty, you can soak it anywhere from 3 hours to overnight, changing the water occasionally; however soaking will also remove some of the salmon flavor. (I only needed to rinse mine really thoroughly.)

Dice the salmon into small cubes about the size of a pencil eraser. Finely mince the onion; the pieces should be half the size or even smaller than the salmon (if the onion is very bitter, you can soak it in water for a few minutes and then drain it to remove the bitter juices). Finely mince the green onion. Deseed the tomato and dice it into cubes which are slightly smaller than the salmon.

Place the diced salmon in a mixing bowl. Reserve a small pinch of green onions for garnishing; add the rest of the green onions into the bowl with the salmon. Gently mix in the tomato and onion to taste (lomi lomi means "massage" in Hawaiian). You might not use up all of the tomato and onion; I like my lomi lomi to be mostly salmon with a little bit of tomato and onion since the salmon is the good stuff, though some people like it to be half salmon and half tomato and onion. This mixture can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for several hours or overnight in a covered container.

Serve very cold. In hot places like Hawaii, this is often served over ice or even with a few cubes of ice mixed into the lomi lomi (the melting ice also makes the lomi lomi have a wetter sauce; you can add a small amount of water if you prefer this consistency). Garnish with the reserved minced green onion before serving.

Optional Variation:
 Mix in a few drops of Hawaiian chili pepper water. I didn't add any Hawaiian chili pepper water to mine, but I assume this would be a nice addition. See "Capt. Mike's Lomi Lomi Salmon" from FishMaui.com's recipe for how to make chili pepper water.

Optional Serving Suggestion: Serve on its own as an appetizer or with chips. Taro chips would be a good choice since taro is frequently eaten in Hawaii (since it was brought to the island more than 1,500 years ago by Polynesians (wiki) or substitute another type of compatible crisp or chip, such as yuca. Yuca, which is also called cassava (but isn't the same as yucca (article)), isn't commercially grown in Hawaii, though it is found in Hawaiian gardens as a decorative and edible plant (article)). The picture below shows both taro chips (the white chips with purple lines) and yuca chips, which I found in the deli section of Duc Loi Supermarket in San Francisco. An innovative alternative is to serve it with lightly salted fried shrimp chips.

Kasma Loha-unchit's Thai Cooking Class

Monday, September 02, 2013

Recently, I took a Thai cooking course from Kasma Loha-unchit, an expert teacher in Thai home cooking. Kasma has been teaching Thai cooking since 1985 and she has written two cookbooks, "It Rains Fishes" (which won the International Association of Culinary Professionals award for Best International Cookbook of 1995) and "Dancing Shrimp". They are two of my favorite cookbooks because they are beautifully written, they have detailed explanations of the recipes within, and the recipes work well. She offers several classes (beginning, intermediate, and advanced in both night and week-long versions) and guided tours to Thailand. I took her "Beginning-Intermediate Weeklong Thai Cooking" course--I loved it. Kasma, her husband Michael, and all of the wonderful students that attended made the class so much fun and of course the food was fantastic.

Kasma has a great depth of knowledge and experience which she imparts to her students; by the end of the week, I was comfortable with many new Thai techniques and ingredients that were once unfamiliar to me. One of her fundamental lessons is seasoning by taste and balancing flavors (see here and here); she teaches her students how to cook this way by showing how adding hot, salty, sour, sweet, and bitter ingredients can change, enhance, and blend flavors. For example, sauces that contain sugar aren't necessarily supposed to taste sweet; a small pinch of sugar (not enough to make the sauce taste sweet) can make lime juice taste more sour, enhance the flavor of spices, increase the heat from chilies, and balance flavors. Often when preparing foreign cuisines my tendency is to follow the recipe exactly since I don't have a taste memory of the dishes; however a recipe really should be used as a guideline, since ingredients can vary in strength. Seeing the effect of the flavors allowed me to understand the purpose of these hot, salty, sour, sweet, and bitter ingredients so I could adjust the recipe.

What I was most impressed by is Kasma's calmness; when I cook I am usually worried about whether things are going wrong or if I'm doing something incorrectly. Kasma cooks quickly and confidently. She made everything look easy--because of this I left with the understanding that great Thai home cooking is accessible and achievable.

I highly recommend her classes (http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/).

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