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Traditional Smoking Wood in Hawaii

I was reading a few old posts about making kalua pig and lau lau, Most of them mentioned the importance of using kiawe wood for an 'authentic' flavor, including my own posts. But Kiawe wasn't introduced to Hawaii until the late 1820's.

Does anyone know what the prefered wood(s) were before Kiawe arrived? Not that I want to start cutting down rare indigenous trees for lau lau, I'm just curious.

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  1. Hm-m, that is a good one. All of the Island chefs, with whom I have spoken only go back to kiawe, even if they are native.

    Hope that someone can answer you.

    We use mesquite (in the same family, along with acacia), and every time that I encounter the smell, I am immediately transported to The Islands in my mind. When my landscapers trim any mesquite trees, all large branches are saved for me.

    Good luck with this one, and maybe you can find an Auntie, who remembers her great-great grandmother's talk story.


    1. Aren't Kalua pig and lau lau steamed, not smoked? I always thought the flavor in an imu came from banana stalks. Don't you just use the wood to heat the rocks which are then put in the bottom of an imu and covered in banana stalks which steam and flavor the food?

      2 Replies
      1. re: akq

        traditionally the rocks are heated and then placed in the ground, but in heating the rocks there is flavor transfer, even in a traditional imu. the resins and smoke do get deposited on the rocks and from there to the food, although there is no direct contact.

        1. re: KaimukiMan

          It doesn't seem like there would be enough transfer of flavor from the wood in that way to make a particular difference between one wood or another. I think the majority of the flavor comes from whatever banana stalks or other wet materials are used to create the steam in the imu.

      2. E, Kaimukiman, Aloha Kaua:

        Your question about wahie (firewood) presumes the answer(s) are a *kind* of wood, and I'm not sure the presumption makes historical sense.

        I think the true answer is not going to be of much help: whatever was at hand, dry, that burned. Driftwood, adze chips, broken branches, grasses, pretty much everything that could get the stones hot. Think what could be gathered without risking breaking the canoe adzes.

        Unless you build your fire *in* your imu, not much smoke there, anyway. In the oven versions, I use just a drop or two liquid smoke for a whole Boston Butt.

        FWIW, I have used koa scraps in my bbq and smoker with good results, just not pono to put the wood itself in contact with the food.


        1. Not exactly on topic but somewhat related.

          Went to the new Sat am Kaka'ako Makai Community Cultural Marketplace which has a theme of local, non-GMO produce, products, and prepared foods. One of the vendors was "Guava Smoked" with a fairly wide range of smoked pork goodies...the samples were quite delicious. I haven't tried it at home yet, but got a frozen package of guava smoked pork shoulder(butt) and am eagerly looking forward to using it. I inquired where he got his meat and he said it was Shinsato pork. Of course I'm pretty sure guava isn't indigenous either, but the samples were really tasty. I imagine that if traditional Hawaiians had done smoking and if they had guava wood they would have done something like this.

          1. E, Kaimukiman:

            Remembered this morning that I should also warn you that some Hawai'ian hardwoods are pretty toxic as breathed dust. Don't know about the smoke. Kauila (ironwood) is one.


            11 Replies
            1. re: kaleokahu

              well, im not gonna be building an imu, but its good to keep in mind. don't know how many times ive seen carpenters take home scrapwood from a construction site to barbeque with. After being impregnated with termite treatment I wonder about the health effects of boron burgers.

              and as a side note: neither guava nor ironwood appear to be native species, both introduced sometime in the 1800's.

              1. re: KaimukiMan

                Your comment about leftover wood is exactly what I would think. I have read that kindling was used to stoke the pohaku with no specific variety noted. Related sort of, so many schools have imu during the year when you pay 10 or 15/tray of food and they do all the work for you. Drop it off and pick it up the next day. I've done that at Castle HS before and had wonderful results.

                1. re: KaimukiMan

                  E, Kaimukiman:

                  With respect, there are two ironwoods that are native. Used for spears, and other weapons.


                  1. re: kaleokahu

                    Thank you for the clarification Kaleokahu. i do know that the generic name 'ironwood' is used for a large number of different species, some totally unrelated to others.

                    1. re: KaimukiMan

                      I love my calabash collection with all the names in Hawaiian inscribed on the underside. I'm like the OP sometimes I'll make my kalua with some liquid smoke and wrap the meat in a banana leaf from my yard to impart flavor and keep moist.

                      1. re: manomin

                        E, manomin, Aloha:

                        What woods you gets for your 'umeke? Gets nets for them?


                        1. re: kaleokahu

                          Lots and lots of different woods. No nets, some are not that big. Lots of Dan Deluz (who I truly adored) as well as Micheal Ilipuakea Dunne.
                          Never eaten poi or anything from them. How do you make your kalua in the oven? Comparing notes. I like Nico's because he uses a smoker in the parking lot (usually on Fridays).

                          1. re: manomin

                            Hi, manomin:

                            Wow, I'd like to see your collection.

                            For the oven recipe, I like to pierce the butt all over with a larding needle, then rub on the pa'akai and the smoke. Then in an open roaster at 475F for, like 20 minutes (or a light sear if you have a pan big enough). THEN hit it again with the alaea and smoke, wrap in bananna leaf, ti leaf over that, tie it up good. Wrap tightly in foil, and then 325F oven for 45 minutes per pound.

                            I do the open high heat first to better approximate the drying/hardening effect of the stones you would put *inside* the carcass. I like some variation in the texture and color between steamed and roasted. But you can omit this and it's still ono, just maybe up the temp to 350.


                      2. re: KaimukiMan

                        Aloha, Kaimukiman:

                        No problem. There is one kauila that is native only to O'ahu and Hawai'i, Columbria oppositifolia. The other is a little softer, found on all the large islands, Alphitonia ponderosa. And of course Kaua'i has its own, pu'ukapele.

                        Enjoy your pua'a, brah. 'Til the fat runs! Or, as my friends in the Cooks like to say, "My grandfather ate your grandfather!"


                        1. re: kaleokahu

                          'Or, as my friends in the Cooks like to say, "My grandfather ate your grandfather!" '

                    2. re: KaimukiMan

                      That is why I use the mesquite limbs, here on the Mainland, for similar smoking - no treatments.


                  2. When I was a kid my Family used the trunk of a coconut tree along with the ti plants after the leaves were taken off. Of course the trunk of th banana plant was also used. That is what I believe was used way before kiawe wood.

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: flylice2x

                      Aloha, flylice2x:

                      Sounds like that's about right, at least after abolition of the food kapus--before then, na mai'a were kapu for wahine.


                      1. re: kaleokahu

                        I can see that this is going to be an interesting thread, from a historical perspective.

                        Please remember that there are some haloes, who might need a bit of background, though I am still following, but only this far. I have a feeling that I am going to be lost, and curious, with the next round, so be understanding and very patient, as the thread is important to us.



                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          Aloha, Hunt:

                          The archeological record of human foodstuffs in Hawai'i nei is very limited and embarrassingly fragmented, so much of what we think we know is inferential and conjectural. It may be that the original poe kahiko were castaways or shipwrecks who never had the luxury of a pig to roast.

                          Still, the myths and legends, the chants, the proverbs, strongly suggest that the first pigs, dogs, and chickens landed in Hawai'i with the first people who guided voyaging canoes there. Whenever they were introduced, domesticated animals such as pigs were very much luxury and sacrificial goods. They were also a popular form of tribute and tax payment, hence the ali'i tended to partake more regularly in their eating than did the makaʻāinana (commoners).

                          With the last major pre-contact invasions of Hawai'i by the Tahitians, said to have been c1400AD, came not only a new ruling caste, but a religion that included an elaborate system of food and social kapus that was part of the system of propitiating the new gods. Men and women could not eat together. Men ate certain foods (OK, many, notably excepting dog) that women were forbidden on pain of death. Banana and pig were two such foods. Men's and women's foods actually had to be cooked separately.

                          By the time of contact (let's ignore for now the evidence that the Japanese or Spaniards beat Cook to Hawai'i by several hundred years), the kapu system had grown to be incredibly onerous--there were countless infractions that were punishable by death, maiming and enslavement. The people, now numbering around 400,000 souls, were ready for a change. And even many ali'i considered it a royal PIA to keep the kapus.

                          Once the ali'i were seduced by western goods, social and cultural influences, the kapu system and its food strictures was doomed. After Kamehameha's death in 1819, his wives, including Keōpūolani and notably the queen regent Kaʻahumanu, used the traditional mourning suspension of the eating kapus (party down until the coronation of a new ali'i nui!) as an excuse to end them entirely and party perpetually. Kamehameha's son and successor, Liholiho, tried to reimpose the food kapus, but he was famously forced to eat a feast of dog meat (previously kapu for men) to show that the kapus were gone forever. This revolution is now known as the 'Ai Noa, or "Free Eating". By the time the missionaries arrived in 1820, most of all of the remaining kapus and the old religion had also fallen.

                          So, from c1400 until the 'Ai Noa, wahine could eat pua'a kalua only at the risk of death.

                          Ironically, the licentiousness that followed the 'Ai Noa contributed greatly to the Missionaries' thinking that Hawai'ians were amoral savages who needed "saving". That one year shaped more of Hawai'ian history than any other.

                          Aloha Kaua, Hunt, and Mahalo for your kokua with the mo'olelo Hawai'i,

                          1. re: kaleokahu

                            wow, a history of hawaii in 6 paragraphs

                            1. re: kaleokahu

                              Mahalo, what a summary.

                              It's been a while since we've gone trough the Bishop (before the hall remodeling and updating) so will have to take a peek at what they have regarding the Japanese and Spanish contacts...must admit that is history news to me.

                              At least one interesting book on traditional fishing practices and techniques for those so interested -- Hawaiian Fishing Traditions in both Hawai'ian and English. Written in Hawai'ian by Daniel Keha'ulelio, translated from the Hawai'ian by Mary Kawena Pukui.

                              Found it at the Bishop Museum store.

                              1. re: MRMoggie

                                Aloha, MRMoggie:

                                There are tantalizing, inexplicable clues about Japanese and Spanish contacts before Cook.

                                One is the epic story of a miracle weapon, an iron sword that came into the possession of the moi of Hawai'i (remember there were no metals in Hawai'ian material culture).

                                Once, long ago, there was another, much earlier effort to unite the Islands by conquest. All had been conquered and put in thrall except my beloved Kaua'i. Just as Kamehameha attempted hundreds of years later, a great armada and huge amphibious army were amassed.

                                Kaua'i was ably defended buy its moi, Kukona, who destroyed the invading armies at Maha'ulepu and took the mois of all the Islands captive. The whole of Hawai'i was therefore Kukona's for the taking. But he was happy with just Kaua'i (as anyone sensible would be), and kept his enemies as his guests for a year, to show his magnanimity and largess. He held only the instigator, the moi of Hawai'i, for ransom. The ransom offered and accepted was--a Japanese samurai sword.

                                How'd it get there?

                                And there are the matters of early expeditions into the Pacific who never made it back to Spain, and the odd, red-haired, fair-complected "natives" Cook noticed when he "discovered" Hawai'i.


                      2. Ok here we go...

                        In ancient times 300 -500Ad, the new settlers to hawaii only ate seafood, limu and edible plants and fruits being only available on the islands.

                        Pigs, dogs, chickens were later introduced. Pigs were only cooked for special sacrifice and only eaten by the kahunas (preists). These were cooked over an open pit.

                        Taro, sweet potatoes and breadfruit along with other speciies of animals were brought in by other polynesian settlers.

                        Around 1850s the pigs were cooked for celebrations like a birth of a child in an imu.
                        Around tthe time my portuguese side of the family showed up.

                        My original Hawaiian bloodline came from Apia Island in Samoa in the early 1800s
                        and about the same time my chinese side showed up which makes me chop suey....