Polynesian pig roasting is cause for celebration

In many cultures, food plays an important role in traditions.
Roasting a pig in the ground is a Polynesian tradition for celebration. The food is also a common menu item at luaus and is popular with tourists.

Hawaiian siblings Victoria and Titongi Taomia have been to many of these pig roasting celebrations in their lifetimes.
“Smaller umus often take place every Sunday, to cook to’onai, which is the midday meal served after church,” Victoria said. “Larger umus also take place on special occasions, such as holidays, birthdays, weddings or funerals.”

File:Umu pae 1.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
A traditional Earth oven. Photo by Victor Ika for Wikimedia Commons
Victoria and Titongi grew up in American Samoa with their parents and their brother, James. Pig roasts are traditional in Polynesian countries, like Samoa, as well as Hawaii, where the family currently lives.
“Pig roasts can be private or public,” Titongi said. “They can be for birthdays, paddling competitions, or when boats, like canoes, come to the harbor.”
These get togethers are a way for groups of people to get together and bond.
“The ones I’ve been to are usually between several families, though they can be for large groups of strangers,” Titongi said. “The party can be any size, depending on the context and who is invited. Though, in a town as small as ours, people are well connected.”
Pigs are cooked in an imu, also called an umu depending on the region, which is an oven dug into the ground. In the ground, wood is lit on fire to heat rocks and is then removed once the rocks are hot. The size of the hole dug depends on the size of what is being cooked.

Related Story: How to Cook a Pig in the Ground, Hawaiian Style

Leaves are placed on top of the burning rocks when they have reached their highest temperature. The pig is then placed on top of the leaves, so that the meat does not come in direct contact with the rocks.
Banana leaves and Hawaiian sea salt can also be used to season the pig. A few stones may also be placed inside the pig while it cooks, to ensure it cooks fully.
Leaves are used to trap heat and smoke inside the ground, and the meat is left to slow cook for a few hours. This gives the meat a smoky flavor when it is served.
The meat is served when it is tender, often to the point of falling off the bone. This can take between four and eight hours.
“The cooking early in the morning, or sometimes, for especially large umus, it’ll start the night before and go through the night,” Victoria said. (sic)
This practice dates back centuries, and is prominent in a number of cultures, including Puerto Rican, Chinese, Filipino and Indonesian.
“It’s a tradition, usually taken care of by the men in the community,” Victoria said. “They’re usually family members, but occasionally other members of the community will be there, especially if the umu is for a special occasion. Because the umu is more commonly a male task, I never took part in the actual cooking of the umu, but I hung out around my uncles - in the Polynesian sense of the word, they were all close family friends - and my dad while they prepared and cooked the umu.”
However, most people have their own take on it.
“As far as I’m aware, the fact that it's a traditional means of cooking is the only traditional thing about it,” Victoria said. “Every family does their umu differently. Some have started cheating and instead of using banana leaves, they’ll use carpets because it’s easier, or they’ll use tin roofing to more easily conduct heat.”
While the men usually take care of roasting the pig, women have an important role as well.
“I grew up around umus so they became a central part of my childhood,” Victoria said. “Making an umu is a bonding experience, regardless of whether you’re directly cooking or not. The men are the ones usually manning the pit, but the women in the family will also be in the house, prepping the food to go into the umu.”
After the meal, guests spend time socializing.
“When you go to these, you tend to bond with others,” Titongi said. “Usually it’s with people around your age, but if not, there are adults to ask you questions.”
The parties don’t end until the guests are too tired.
“The parties usually continue for a few more hours,” Titongi said. “They tend to close when the kids want to go home. Sometimes, the dads will spend the night at the house, and the moms will take the kids home.”
The anticipation of the meal builds enthusiasm.
“They were important because they weren’t as ordinary as regular meals; at the most we would have them every Sunday,” Victoria said. “Because of how common they were for special events, there was also an air of excitement surrounding them, which often wore off once we had to start preparing the food and the umu.”
These celebrations are an important part of culture for many.
“These are important because they give you a familiar environment,” Titongi said. “And, you’re well fed.”
This celebration with food, family and friends allows people to build a sense of community with the people around them.

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