Steam your Thanksgiving turkey in a Hawaiian imu

Volunteers at KEY Project watch the imu fire slowly steam hundreds of turkeys.

photo: courtesy key project


To have your bird or beast cooked in an imu, it must be thawed, seasoned and wrapped in foil with your name on it before being dropped off the day before Thanksgiving. For reservations, specific restrictions and guidelines, check with each imu’s host.
Enchanted Lakes Elementary School
266-7800 (tentative)
Haili’s Hawaiian Foods
Hakipuu Learning Center
Kailua High School

KEY Project

When it comes to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, most people throw their turkeys into the oven. A few daredevils deep fry their birds. On Oahu, though, you can put a uniquely Hawaiian twist on your feast by having your turkey steamed underground in an imu. This month marks the 27th year that the Kualoa-Heeia Ecumenical Youth (KEY) Project will be imu-ing hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys as a fundraiser and community bonding project.

“The first year was a very steep learning curve,” says John Reppun, the project’s executive director. “We had mentors, older guys doing imu. Several of them were fire captains. We got a good crew together and worked with students,” and they ended up cooking about 100 turkeys that people brought in that year. “It very quickly evolved into something much bigger. Today, we put in as many as 500 turkeys,” though many people also bring hams or roasts. Over the years, what started as a fundraiser for scholarships has become a community event in which more than 100 volunteers dedicate their time to create a stress-free meal.

Today, the KEY Project isn’t the only group that will bury your bird. Around the island, groups with imu will cook turkeys that people drop off for a small fee (usually starting around $15 or $20 per turkey). All you have to do is thaw, season and wrap your own turkey, and it’ll be ready the next morning. “It’s nerve-wracking at times,” Reppun says, “to have 400 to 500 dinners in your hands. … [We] throw in a few extras in case something ever gets mixed up,” but volunteers are often left with those extra birds to share with each other, ohana style. Some groups even offer a complete meal for sale—they’ll put in a turkey for you and you pick it up the next day with all the fixings included.

As the years pass, some of the raw materials required for an imu cook have become scarce, so volunteers are constantly on the lookout for kiawe and other woods that burn hot enough. Among the candidates: mangrove wood, cleared from He‘eia Fishpond; java plum, which holds heat better when it’s still green and has sap; strawberry guava, which is invasive and also great for cooking; lychee and mango trees work, too. Porous rocks, banana stumps and ti leaves also contribute to the different layers needed to fully steam the turkeys.

“This tradition will probably keep up for many years. Some of these kids weren’t even born when we started this,” Reppun says. “I’ve heard a little more often, ‘I get ’em, uncle! I get ’em, no need!’ I have mixed feelings—I’m still young enough to do it but it’s nice to know the next generation is stepping up.

“I think the key with this is, if the imu is dependent on one person, a charismatic leader, it’ll have a good run and then disappear,” Reppun says. “But if it’s built into the tradition of the community, it will survive longer and keep going. I’d like to think that’s what we’ve done.”

Did you know? If you plan to have your own imu, you must call 723-FIRE before lighting it, to warn the fire department.