Turkey Traditions

Thanksgiving Traditions. That’s what it’s all about. Going to grandma’s house to have the special cornbread she’s been cooking for 50 years in her seasoned skillet – Aunt Vicky’s Jello mold slowly liquefying on the dessert table – Mom’s famous pumpkin pie warming in the oven. We may not all have the same Thanksgiving traditions around the world, but I’m sure we can all agree – there’s nothing better than a little taste of home.

If you’re visiting the islands during Thanksgiving, there are several options on all islands that are serving up dinner with all the trimmings. For dinner with a view on Maui, check out Fleetwood’s On Front Street for a 4-course Thanksgiving dinner. On Kaua‘i, Merriman’s Po‘ipū will be serving a 4-course menu as well. Or stop in at Fish Hopper in Kailua Kona on the Big Island for a Thanksgiving Dinner and a special menu prepared by the chef. If you’re on O‘ahu, 53 by the Sea is offering a pre fixe dinner with views of Diamond Head in the background.

Although those restaurants will have the traditional Thanksgiving courses, In Hawai‘i, we have our own food traditions too. The most notable, is the Kālua Turkey. You may have heard of Kālua Pig before – it’s a very popular dish traditionally served at lū‘aus. The whole pig is slow-cooking in an underground oven, called an imu – a large hole dug into the ground, filled with various natural materials. The animal is first seasoned and wrapped in large green tī leaves, which seals in the moisture. It is then placed in the imu, on top of hot lava rocks and green vegetation to create a steaming process. The meat is then covered in a tarp or burlap sack, and then the entire oven is recovered in dirt to seal in the heat. These meats are left in the imu to cook all day long.

The end result? A smoky, soft, easily shredded meat – almost like a pulled pork dish.

Our Kālua Turkeys are prepared in the same way. If you’re lucky enough to have an imu in your backyard, you’ll season your turkey the way you want and will put it in the imu the night before Thanksgiving (along with all your friends and neighbors turkeys too). The next day, you’ll have a perfectly cooked bird, ready to share with the family.

Below we share with you the “modern” Kālua Turkey recipe – for those of you who don’t have imus in your backyard. It may not be as fun as preparing a Hawaiian imu, but it will surely be just as tasty!

Wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

imu 2


Kālua Turkey


  • 1 1/2 cups coarse sea salt or kosher salt
  • 16-pound fresh turkey, giblets, neck and any other packets removed
  • 1/2 cup liquid smoke seasoning, or more as needed
  • Water (optional)


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have at hand a roasting pan with rack that fits inside.

Use all of the salt to rub the exterior of the bird, its cavity and gently under the skin as much as possible. Then pour all of the liquid smoke seasoning outside and inside the bird, rubbing it into the skin to spread it evenly. Place the turkey on the rack in the roasting pan; cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast for 4 1/2 to 5 hours, until much of the skin is lightly browned and a thermometer inserted into the thigh (but not touching the bone) registers 165 degrees. The turkey should be falling off the bone. Uncover, and let the turkey rest for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, strain the pan juices into a small saucepan. Add water (to dilute) or a little liquid smoke seasoning (to intensify the flavor) as needed. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for about 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to low and keep warm; its consistency will be thin.

Discard all the skin and remove the bones from the turkey, reserving the bones for another use, if desired. Transfer the meat to a separate large pan or casserole dish or platter. Use two forks or your clean hands to shred the turkey to the consistency of pulled pork.

Before serving, pour the heated pan juices over the turkey and toss lightly to coat. Serve warm.

Recipe Credit: Sara K. Goo