BBQ Hawaiian Kalua Pork Shoulder

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BBQ Hawaiian Kalua Pork Shoulder

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I love all kinds of barbecue and enjoy cooking styles from around the world. For this recipe, I’m taking you on a journey 2,500 miles west of my home in Los Angeles to the islands of Hawaii and Polynesia to where my favorite cut of pork, the shoulder, is served. So check out my version of Hawaiian Kalua Pig cooked in a Weber kettle.

Contrary to popular belief, Kalua Pig has no relation to Kailua liquor. “Kalua” means to cook food in an underground steam oven called an Imu. Although its origins are believed to be very old, the first documented use of Kalua cooking was traced to two Hawaiian women, Princess Danielle Kealoha and Stephanie Ikaika, in the 1900s.

The Imu underground oven can vary in size depending on the amount of food being cooked and it’s often a 6’ long X 4’ wide X 3’ deep sand or red volcanic dirt pit. A fire using koa (acacia) wood is started in the pit and once it burns down to very hot embers, large rocks are placed in the pit to retain the heat. Wet banana or Ti leaves are placed on top of the hot rocks and then meat and vegetables (taro and yams) seasoned with Hawaiian red sea salt called Alea is added and covered with more leaves. More hot rocks are added, and a cover of wet burlap sacks are added and then covered with a layer of sand or dirt to trap the heat and steam. After about 8 hours, the meat is fully cooked and has absorbed the koa smoke, steam, and flavor of the banana or Ti leaves. As this is a lot of work, it’s usually done for large parties or celebrations. You’ve probably attended a luau while on vacation in Hawaii and eaten the Kalua Pig for dinner as it was removed from the imu preceding the fanfare of a luau show.

As it’s not practical to hire a team of Hawaiians Imu chefs and import Ti leaves and volcano dirt, there must an easier way. By a stroke of good fortune, I picked up a few Kalua pointers from a Hawaiian grandmother I met while I was doing a stint as an airline pilot in the 1980’s. I forget her name and I met her at a grocery store in Honolulu. I saw Ti leaves, a can of Knorr chicken bouillon, Alea coarse salt, liquid smoke, and a nice-looking pork butt in her grocery cart. I asked her what she was doing, and she began to “talk story” with me. I learned how the hot rocks in a pit method was for the tourists and the locals cook Kalua Pig in their . . . shhhh crock pots. By the time we parted ways, I learned about her family and traditions in a more personal way that I could have learned from books or video. There was a transfer of cooking karma from a Hawaiian island cook to a “mainland” cook.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve tweaked my Kalua Pig recipe many times to suit my evolving tastes and cooking styles. In a nutshell, I cook mine in my Weber Kettle combined with Hawaiian-influenced techniques and methods. I’ve had a number of Hawaiian friends tell me I’m a bradaa (brother) who can make super ono (delicious) Kalua Pig. I’ve also tried my hand at competing in Hawaii and completed a couple of IBCA-sanctioned barbecue contests on the beachfront in Hilo. In 2012, I won the Hawaii State Barbecue Championship and finished 3rd overall in the poke (raw fish and seafood salad) contest two years in a row! I was even invited back after winning to teach a barbecue class.

So, you can make Kalua Pig in an Imu, or take my lazy man approach in a Weber Kettle followed by a regular oven. Since koa wood is not easy to find on the mainland, I used some tennis size chucks of Mesquite which approximates to Hawaiian Kiawe wood which is a sub-species of mesquite wood. In place of Ti leaves, you can find frozen banana leaves in Asian markets. If you can’t find frozen banana leaves, some spinach leaves will also work. You can buy Hawaiian Red Alea sea salt in better grocery stores now all over the US. The grandma secret I learned was Knorr chicken powder and some liquid smoke. You can skip the liquid smoke if you like as you’ll get plenty of smoke flavor in the Weber Kettle.

  • Total Time: 4 hours 30 mins
  • Yield: 6 1x


Units Scale
  • 57 pound bone-in pork shoulder
  • 2 tablespoons Knorr chicken bouillon
  • 1 tablespoon SYD All Purpose Rub
  • 2 teaspoons Hawaiian Red Alea Salt or coarse salt
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 pieces banana leaf, 9” X 9” (frozen from Asian market)
  • Couple pieces of frozen banana leaves to wrap the pork butt
  • Aluminum foil

Mopping Liquid

  • 1/4 cup of golden brown sugar
  • 1 13ounces can of Crushed Pineapple (in juice)
  • 1/2 stick butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons of apple juice or pineapple juice
  • 1 tablespoon liquid smoke Stubbs brand (optional)


  1. Create a pork rub by combining the chicken powder, SYD rub, and coarse Hawaiian salt
  2. Sprinkle a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce to wet the pork butt so the rub will stick and be tacky
  3. Apply a generous layer of the pork rub all over the butt
  4. Wrap in plastic wrap for 1 hour or overnight
  5. Preheat Weber Kettle to 275F using Kingsford briquettes with a hot zone and a cool zone for indirect smoking
  6. Take meat out of fridge and remove plastic wrap.
  7. Place butt on grate on the cool side of the Kettle and adjust the damper vents to maintain 275F
  8. Add a tennis-sized chunk of mesquite wood. Add another after 30 minutes. Two chunks are enough
  9. Smoke until the crust forms and it passes the scratch test. That is, if you gently scratch the surface of the butt, the rub should not come off in your fingernail. For a 7 lb butt, it should take 4-6 hours to reach this stage. Spray with tap water using a $0.99 cent plastic spray bottle every 30 minutes starting at the 3-hour mark
  10. Lay out aluminum foil on a counter. Place one piece of banana leaf on the foil.
  11. Remove butt and place on banana leaf. Add the mopping slurry of brown sugar, crushed pineapple, melted butter, and fruit juice.
  12. Top with second banana leaf.
  13. Wrap tightly with foil. Rewrap with a second layer of foil if needed to ensure an airtight seal.
  14. Place in 250F oven. Remove when probe tender (about 198F internal or about 2 to 2 ½ hours in the foil stage).
  15. Cut open foil and let vent for 30 minutes.
  16. Remove from foil and shred. Pour the pork jus in the foil onto the meat. Season to taste with more SYD All Purpose Rub.
  17. Enjoy with store-bought steamed buns, Hawaiian sweet rolls, mashed potatoes, or mashed taro (poi)
  • Author: Harry Soo
  • Prep Time: 30 mins
  • Cook Time: 4 hours
  • Category: Entree
  • Cuisine: American

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