Earth oven

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A Samoan 'umu at the early stage of heating the rocks

An earth oven or cooking pit is one of the most simple and long-used cooking structures. At its simplest, an earth oven is a pit in the ground used to trap heat and bake, smoke, or steam food. Earth ovens have been used in many places and cultures in the past, and the presence of such cooking pits is a key sign of human settlement often sought by archaeologists. They remain a common tool for cooking large quantities of food where no equipment is available.

Earth ovens have been used in various civilizations around the world, and are still commonly found in the Pacific region.

To bake food, the fire is built, then allowed to burn down to a smoulder. The food is then placed in the oven and covered (this can be used for bread-baking, for example, and has been used in some cultures for soldiers on military expeditions). Steaming is similar. Fire-heated rocks are put into a pit and are covered with green vegetation to add moisture, large quantities of food, more green vegetation and sometimes water if more moisture is needed. Finally, a covering of earth is added over everything. The food in the pit can take up to several hours to a full day to cook, whether by dry or wet methods.

Today, many communities still use cooking pits for ceremonial or celebratory occasions. Some of these communities include The Indigenous Fijian lovo, the Hawaiian luau, Māori hāngi and the New England clam bake. The central Asian tandoor, used primarily for uncovered, live-fire baking, is a transitional design between the earth oven and the horizontal-plan masonry oven, essentially a permanent earth oven made out of clay or firebrick with a constantly burning, very hot fire in the bottom. In modern times, earth ovens are sometimes used for outdoor cooking and recreational meals in lieu of an open campfire.

Americas[edit]

In many areas archaeologists recognize "pit-hearths" as being in common use in the past. In Central Texas there are large "burned-rock middens" apparently used for large-scale cooking of plants of various sorts, especially the bulbs of sotol. The Mayan pib and Andean watia are other examples.

The clambake, invented by Native Americans on the Atlantic seaboard and considered a traditional element of New England cuisine, traditionally uses a type of ad hoc earth oven (usually built in beach) a large enough hole is dug into the sand and heated rocks are added to the bottom of the hole, a layer of seaweed is then laid over top to create moisture and steam, the food is then placed on top of the seaweed and lastly another layer of seaweed is added to trap in the steam and cook the food which mainly consists of shellfish and vegetables.

The Curanto of the Chiloé Archipelago consist of shellfish, meat, potatoes, milcao chapaleles, and vegetables traditionally prepared in an earth oven. It has spread to the southern areas of Chile.

Middle East and North Africa[edit]

Earth oven cooking is sometimes used for celebratory cooking in North Africa, particularly Morocco; a whole lamb is cooked in an earth oven (called a tandir, etymologically related to the Central- and South Asian tandoor and possibly descended from an Akkadian word tinuru) in a manner similar to Hawaiian kalua. Among Bedouin and Tuareg nomads a simple earth oven is used, often when men travel without family & kitchen equipment in the desert. The oven is mostly used to bake bread but is also used to cook venison such as waran. The wheat or barley flour is mixed with water (and some salt) and then placed directly into the hot sands beneath the camp fire. It is then covered again by hot coal and left to bake. This kind of bread is eaten with black tea (in the absence of labneh). The sand has to be knocked off carefully before consuming the bread. Sometimes this type of bread is also made when the family is together, because people like the taste of it. The bread is often mixed with molten fat (sometimes oil or butter) and labneh (goat milk joghurt) and then formed into a dough before eating. This bread is known as Arbut[1] but may be known under other local names.

The Pacific [edit]

A maori earth oven

Earth oven cooking was very common in the past and continues into the present – particularly for special occasions, because of how labor-intensive the earth oven process was.

In the closely related and some part-Melanesian Polynesian languages the general term is "umu", from the Proto-Oceanic root *qumun: e.g.; Tongan ʻumu, Māori umu or hāngi, Hawaiian imu, Sāmoan umu, Cook Island Māori umu. In some non-Polynesian, part-Polynesian and Micronesian parts of the Pacific, languages are more diverse so each language has its own term - in Fiji it is a lovo and in Rotuman it is a koua. (In Papua New Guinea, "mumu" - borrowed from Polynesian[verification needed], is used by Tok Pisin- and English-speakers, but each of the other hundreds of local languages has its own word.)

Despite the similarities, there are many differences in the details of preparation, their cultural significance and current usage.

Samoan Umu[edit]

Samoan umu preparation with pig and taro on hot rocks above ground later covered by leaves for cooking.

The Samoan umu uses the same method of cooking as many other earth ovens and is closely related to the Hawaiian earth oven, the imu, which is done underground by digging a pit. Although, generally the umu is done above ground rather than in a pit. It is a common day-to-day method of preparing roasted foods with modern ovens being restricted to western style houses. In the traditional village house, gas burners will be used inside the house to cook some food in pots. The umu is sheltered by a roof in case of rain and is separate from the house. There are no walls. which allows the smoke from the cooking to escape.

The Samoan umu starts with a fire to heat rocks which have been tested by fire and which have not exploded. These rocks are used repeatedly but eventually are discarded and replaced when it is felt that they no longer hold enough heat. Once the rocks are hot enough they are stacked around the parcels of food which are wrapped in banana leaves or aluminium foil. Leaves are then placed over the assembly and the food is left to cook for a few hours until it is cooked.

Hawaiian Imu[edit]

The Hawaiian imu was the easiest way to cook large quantities of food quickly and efficiently for the Hawaiians. Because their creation was so labor-intensive, imu’s were only created for special event or ceremonies where it would be worth the time and hard work. An imu is created by first digging a 2–4 foot hole in the ground. Porous rocks are heated on the side added to the bottom of the pit after they have been heating for a while; next, a layer of banana stumps is added over top along with the banana leaves. After the vegetation is put down, the meat, fish, along with any other foods are placed on top and covered once again with more vegetation. Wet cocoa sacks are also sometimes added over top to add even more moisture and trap in more heat.

Europe[edit]

Although not believed to be common in Europe, earth ovens were used from the Neolithic period onwards with examples from this period found at the sites of Rinyo and Links of Notland on Orkney[2] but are more commonly known in the Bronze and Iron Ages from sites such as Trethellan Farm and Maiden Castle, Dorset. Examples from these periods vary in form but are generally bowl-shaped and shallow in depth (30–45 cm) with diameters between 0.5 and 2 metres. In Greek cuisine, there is also a tradition of kleftiko ("thief style") dishes, ascribed to anti-Turkish partisans during the Greek war for independence, which involve wrapping the food in clay and cooking in a covered pit, allegedly at first to avoid detection by Turkish forces.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Bedouin bread - YouTube". youtube.com. Retrieved 2014-05-27. 
  2. ^ Renfrew, J 2005

References[edit]

  • Wandsnider, L (1997), "The Roasted and the Boiled: Food Composition and Heat Treatment with Special Emphasis on Pit-Hearth Cooking", Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 16 (1): 1–48, doi:10.1006/jaar.1997.0303. 
  • Brennan, Jennifer (2000), Tradewinds & Coconuts: A Reminiscence & Recipes from the Pacific Islands, Periplus, pp. 127–134, ISBN 962-593-819-2 
  • Lewin, J.G; P.J. Huff (2006), How To Feed An Army: Recipes and Lore from the Front Lines, New York: Collins, ISBN 978-0-06-089111-4 
  • Renfrew, Jane (2005), Prehistoric Cookery: recipes and history, English Heritage 
  • The Samoan UMU!, Samoa Online 
  • Imu - Hawaiian Underground Oven, Imu 
  • Host a New England Clambake for a refreshing Taste Of Summer, About.com Entertaining 

External links[edit]