Kalua Pork & Cabbage Recipe

What is Kalua Pork?

Kālua is a Hawaiian word referring to cooking in an underground oven or Hawaiian “imu”. This is a very traditional method which involves digging a large pit into the ground, lining it with hot lava rocks and banana or ti leaves to help insulate and steam the pig. Once the pig is placed in the ground, it is covered by more leaves and a protective layer, then buried with the dirt from digging out the hole. the pig is left to cook for the day, around 8 hours. You will typically find this Kalua pork at luaus or large family gatherings. However, it is often offered as a plate lunch at many of the local eateries.

On my first trip to Hawaii and the many that followed it, Kalua pork always remained one of my favorite plate lunches. The version you will find on a plate lunch has cabbage mixed in, served on a bed of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad on the side. On our most recent trip, I ate it at least 3 times the week we were there. We hiked a lot and I’m thinking my body was craving the salt, protein and potassium to replenish the system.

Health Note: Cabbage is high in potassium and vitamin C.

The wonderful thing about this Kalua pork recipe is the leftovers: there will be a lot. This is my go to recipe when I have a busy week ahead of me and I need to be productive in the evening making new jewelry designs, updating this blog or my gem blog. Depending on how much pork you buy and how big your family is, this recipe will make about 3-4 days worth of food.

When I cook dishes with meat, I try to make sure the mix of meat and vegetables is 50/50 or 40/60, with the higher percentage being vegetables. This ratio of meat to vegetables tends to give my recipes the perfect balance of savory and sweet, with the vegetables providing the sweet.

Shopping tip:

Make sure to weigh out your cabbage. It is very easy to end up with too much cabbage and if you don’t have a plan for the leftover cabbage, it is a huge waste. I made this mistake the first time and felt so guilty throwing out the remaining cabbage after 4 days because it was a busy week.

For the pork, you want at least 1.5 lbs. Pork shoulder is used in this recipe and it tends to be on the fatty side. Make sure to look for a good size shoulder with not too many large fat parts in it. We need some for flavor, but it’s not healthy to have too much. You can always trim the excess fat if you can’t find a piece you like. I prefer to not handle the meat any more than I need to, so I will look at all the trays for the least amount of fat and work involved.

Hawaiian Sea Salt & Liquid Smoke

These ingredients are an absolute necessity for this recipe. Don’t worry, you will be able to use them for other recipes that I will eventually add here.  Hawaiian sea salt is different in taste and nutrition than regular salt. It has a gorgeous deep red color because this salt is created through natural evaporation when it is trapped in tidal pools and mixes with red volcanic clay. The red color comes from the extremely high amount of iron naturally present in the clay. The salt is said to contain 80 different naturally occurring minerals. Red Alaea salt has a mellow flavor that goes well with all kinds of dishes such as soups and stews. It is saltier than regular salt, so a little goes a long way in any dish you use it in. If you’re local grocery store doesn’t carry it, you may purchase it here.

Transferred my Alea salt into a mason jar.
Transferred my Alea salt into a mason jar.

I have not used liquid smoke in too many things, but I really like the taste of this one and you can get it here:

Liquid smoke is essential to the authentic taste of Kalua pork because it is smoked in an underground pit.

Being the efficient cook that I am, this recipe has been adapted to cook in a slow cooker and finished off in a wok. The prep work involved for this recipe is minimal and most of the cooking time is done in the slow cooker. You can easily get this going in the morning before work and have most of your dinner ready for the evening. In my case, I work on new jewelry designs until I’m tempted by the smell to see if my pork is ready.

This Kalua Pork and Cabbage recipe was perfected on my 5th trial. The best way to described the final flavor is just enough smoky saltiness, complimented by a deep herbaceous note with a lingering sweetness from the cabbage and coconut water. I have worked out all the kinks so that this comes closest to the best Kalua pork I’ve had from Hawaii, minus the need to dig a hole in my yard.

Kalua Pork & Cabbage Recipe

Serves: 8-10         Prep time: 10         Slow Cooker Time: 4 hours on HIGH, 6-8 hours on LOW

Ingredients for the Pork

1.5 – 2 lbs          Pork Shoulder, rinse & dry

2 tsp                  Alaea Sea Salt

2 cloves            Garlic, pressed or finely chopped

1/2 tsp              Ground Pepper

1 – 2 tsp             Organic Sugar (only use only 1 tsp if using Coconut water)

1/4 – 1/2 cup    Coconut water or filtered water

1-1.5 tsp             Liquid Smoke

2-3                     Bay leaves (this is my trick to give it the herbal/earthy taste)

Ingredients for the Meal

1.5 – 2 lbs          Green Cabbage

1 small              onion, about 1 cup diced

2 cups               Rice, cooked

How to make Kalua Pork

  1. Get your slow cooker set up. We will prep the pork right in it.
  2. Cut the pork into 1.5-2 inch thick steak pieces. This helps with the seasonings soaking in deeper and speeds up the cooking time.
  3. You can place the pork shoulder steaks in the slow cooker. Season the pork with the salt, garlic, ground pepper, liquid smoke and sugar. Make sure to coat both sides of the steaks evenly.
  4. Slowly add the coconut water or water to the slow cooker. It is very important that you pour the water along the side of the slow cooker, not directly over the meat. Doing it this way preserves the seasonings on the meat, allowing them to really penetrate into the fibers for full flavor. If you pour it directly on the meat, the seasonings will just get diluted into the liquid.
  5. Add the Bay leaves. I like to place these apart from each other and in spaces where there’s more liquid.
  6. Place the lid on and cook on your preferred temperature. I cooked mine on High, since I started this a bit later in the afternoon.
  7. The pork is ready when you can poke a fork into it and do a turn/twisting motion to break it apart. If the pork does not shred a little when you do the fork test, let it cook another 45 minutes and check again.
  8. When the pork is ready, scoop out 3/4 cup of the cooking juices from the slow cooker and place in a liquid measuring cup.

How to make Cabbage and Kalua Pork (Do this in the last half hour before the pork is ready.)

  1. Get your rice cooker started or start cooking the rice in your preferred method.
  2. Wash and cut the cabbage in half. You want to remove the hard core at the base of the cabbage.
  3. Then slice the cabbage and place into a bowl.
  4. Dice the onion.
  5. By the time the above steps are completed, the pork should be ready. Do the for test mentioned above before moving on.
  6. Heat up the wok or a large saute pan or 12 inch cast iron pan on Medium-High. Add the oil.
  7. Add the onions and cook until they just start browning, about 4 minutes.
  8. Add the cabbage and stir fry with the onions until everything starts to get that nice caramelized color, about 7 minutes.
  9. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the pork and shred it in the pan using a fork or smashing it with the spatula you are using to stir fry the cabbage.
  10. Now take the juices you set aside in the measuring cup and pour half of it into the saute pan. This will quickly steam the cabbage and add more flavor to the final dish. You may need to add more liquid if the cabbage still looks under cooked. You don’t want the dish to be soupy and you don’t want it dry.
  11. Turn off the heat and give everything a thorough mixing.
  12. Top your rice bowl with the pork and cabbage and enjoy!

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments for any help you need preparing this.

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