Let’s say you have mastered the outdoor skills of foraging and fishing and you are now an expert in trapping and snaring techniques. How about your cooking methods? Have you ever tried cooking like the early men? If not, today you will learn how to make an earth oven and cook your food using this primitive cooking method.
Due to circumstance that led to the decay of our society, you find yourself living in the wilderness. You have a good supply of ammunition and are proficient with a rifle or bow. A freshly cleaned elk carcass is hanging from a tree loaded with ripe wild berries out-side, and a tub is full of fresh fish. To add to your booty, a bushel of poke greens and 10 pounds of mushrooms drag in your rucksack.
If you’re in the woods or any primitive situation, it’s not likely you’ll have an electric range or gas oven at your disposal for cooking. The very size and amount of your produce and game makes it impractical to roast over an open flame, and if there were no pots and pans available, you’d be hard pressed to cook your fruits and vegetables properly.
So what do you do? Go native!
In the South Seas islands large feasts are accomplished by using an earth oven or umu, which is really not that much different than the deep pit barbecues used by our wild and restless western cowboys.
The umu, though millennia old, is about the best and easiest way to cook food that primitive or modern man has ever devised. Better even than the microwave!
How the earth oven works
Once the earth oven is prepared and the food is placed in and covered up, there’s no hassle with adjusting temperatures, no basting, no splattering, and no smoke. The food is slowly and thoroughly simmered in its own juices to tender perfection in about two hours’ time while the cook, no thanks to his help, just lounges around the beach, the meadow or woods, catching a few rays of afternoon sun.
Basically, an earth oven is just a hole in the ground lined with super-heated stones. Because of its nature an umu can be made in almost any soil type, so long as the soil can be dug far enough into.
I’ve built mine in both loose sand and packed dirt, and various combinations between. When the hole is dug throw on the packets of food, cover with leaves and with earth, let steam, and by golly you’ve got it!
Well, almost anyway. Not long after I was privileged to partake in my first real umukai (island feast) on the island of Tonga, I decided to give one a go myself and quickly discovered that what one dozen experienced Tongans make look easy, is not so easy for one inexperienced beachcomber.
However, when armed with the knowledge of the proper techniques even a simpleton can prepare a steamy, succulent meal that far surpasses the dry, hurried cooking that takes place in a conventional oven at home. Now, let me share my knowledge of how to build an earth oven (umu). You will notice the little details make all the difference.
Constructing an earth oven
The first step in preparing an earth oven is to determine the necessary size of the oven.
If you’re cooking a simple meal for four, it doesn’t have to be more than a couple feet deep and three feet around. When building an earth oven, the size of the game determines the depth and circumference.
If the foodstuff to be cooked is large, adjust the pit to be wide enough and long enough for everything to fit. At least a couple inches below the surface of the ground after the food is placed in the earth oven. If you have a two-person team one can attend to the construction and firing of the umu, while the other is preparing the food.
If you’re on your own, you’ll just have to first build —but not light — the oven, then afterwards prepare the parcels of food. Throughout this article I’ll assume the reader is a lone wolf, and detail each step accordingly.
Once the pit has been dug to sufficient proportions, gather enough firewood to loosely fill in the hole, setting aside a pile of stout branches (no more than an inch in diameter) for step number three.
Hopefully, while gathering firewood the cook also kept an eye out for rocks. The secret of the success of an earth oven is how well the umu holds heat, and nothing holds in the heat like a stone. But not just any stone, mind you.
My first attempt at an earth oven was an interesting one to say the least. I make the distinction here between attempt and “successful attempt’.
It’s all in the stones!
While gathering stones for my earth oven, I found some wonderful pieces of dark, layered slate near the seashore. Slate, as I found to my surprise, makes about as practical a heat receptor as a live grenade, and can be no less lethal.
As the slate heated up, the trapped moisture within its many layers rapidly turned to steam, expanding instantaneously causing the brittle stones to explode into scores of searing, razor-sharp pieces of shrapnel that erupted from the ground and sent bystanders running.
Do not use slate! Even dry slate, when heated, can explode into dangerous fragments. The very best stones for an earth oven are igneous stones — rocks of volcanic origin. Granite, for example, is an igneous stone and works well. If in the city, chunks of concrete or bricks can be used to nearly equal effect. Asphalt, on the other hand, will just melt into gravel and give a bad smell to the food.
South Seas islanders are some of the most ingenious people I know and are experts at making-do with whatever they have. Those natives inhabiting the far-flung coraline atolls of the equatorial Pacific, who have no volcanic rocks available, use dry chunks of coral or even coconut husks instead.
Related reading: Cooking with mud like in the old ways
The only problem here is that the heat receptors can be used only once. The coconut husks will be reduced to ashes, and the coral to calcium carbonate dust. If no suitable rocks are available in your locale, all is not lost. Dig the pit twice as deep and fill with wood. The compacted ashes will serve to hold heat. However, I have to mention that that rocks are great conservers of fuel.
To get the earth oven ready for your big feast, fashion a strong lattice work above the oven (made of the set aside sticks) by crisscrossing them one over the other.
Pile the rocks, bricks or whatever atop of the sticks, leaving just enough room around the sides of the oven to light the fire in later. The rocks are placed over the fire so that when it is ablaze, the stones will be heated from underneath.
As the rue continues to burn, the lattice work will smolder and after a while collapse. When it does the stones will drop through, placing them in a position to also be heated on the sides and the top. Natural automation!
Everything in an earth oven is designed for absolute efficiency and simplicity.
Using an earth oven properly
Now we’ll turn our attention to the food. It’s entirely possible to throw a whole elk in an earth oven and let it cook to perfection. It is similar to what the Hawaiians do with pigs. Personally I prefer to have my food in smaller portions. Not only is it much easier to handle and eat later, it also cooks better. Too large of game is nearly impossible to wrap, it may be overdone and dry in some portions, and raw and bloody elsewhere.
When the islanders prepare their meats, they reduce the foodstuff into individually wrapped portions just right for one, sealed in an edible container. This is done by first spreading four young tam leaves across each other in a clover leaf configuration. The main course is placed in the center of these, leaves where they overlap together, then each of the four corners is folded over the other like the lid of a box, enclosing the goodies within.
Suggested reading: Civil War Recipes – Improvised Cooking for Preppers
The modern man with his microwave TV dinners hasn’t yet designed a pan so practical as taro that can be heated and eaten with the main course! This edible package is in turn surrounded by a freshly picked banana leaf that is wrapped around it and tied off “celebration package-style” with the fiber strings from the banana leaf midrib.
If the meat or vegetables are being cooked without any sauce, a sprinkling of water is added before tying this last layer oft. This is done for two reasons: one, without the added moisture the longer cooking time of an earth oven could cause the meat to be a little too dry. And two, the steam that’s produced causes the cooking temperature to be higher than what the dry heat could produce alone.
The islander’s choice of leaves for the wrapping is also not without reason. The banana leaf is not edible but it is not toxic, and therefore makes a safe natural cooking container. It is thick enough to keep too hot a fire from charring the food, besides being large enough to hold a hefty serving. It also gives off a pleasant aroma when cooked, enhancing the flavor of the overall dish.
American Style earth oven
Since both taro and banana leaves can be rather hard to come by here on the mainland, I’ve listed some suitable substitutes for the outdoors man in the North American bush. Wild sugar beet (Beta vulgaris), yellow dock (Rumex alarms), ulva (sea lettuce) and full-sized yet young wild grape leaves make excellent wild substitutes for taro, or on the tamer side, so will cultivated lettuce or cabbage.
In lieu of banana try weaving cattail leaves together to form the outer package, or if in a desert or urban environment, use palm leaves. Just be sure to know that whatever plant you use is non-poisonous
The secret of success when making these vegetable containers is to first wilt the loaves that you use, over a small open fire. This makes them pliable and less likely to break. If you’re unsure of the edibility of the available plants, you can use wet cotton or wool clothing. Even burlap bags work to wrap the food portions in.
Some foods don’t need to be protected at all. After lighting the fire, thoroughly heating the stones above and beneath, removing all large burning embers (we want heat, not flames!), and spreading tho stones out evenly, root vegetables such as potatoes, yams, cattail rhizomes, agave, etc, can be placed directly atop the hot rocks.
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Pile the prepared packets of food atop these and you’re almost finished. If there are no root vegetables between the stones and the packets of food, make sure to wrap an extra layer or two of leaves on the outside last layer, to keep the food from scorching.
Once everything is in place, cover it all with a thick layer of non-poisonous leaves: grass clippings, clovers, ferns, seaweed, pine and willow boughs will all do. This will help seal the heat in and provide a little more moisture.
Finally, cover the last layer of leaves with cardboard or sheets or cloth, and completely bury this under a thick layer of dirt till nothing is showing beneath and no steam can be seen escaping.
If you are making a fairly small dinner (enough to feed one to eight) with game no larger than rabbits or fish, two hours cooking time should suffice.
If cooking an elk or a deer be sure to start your earth oven early in the morning and don’t uncover until almost sundown. Twelve hours is about the time you need.
When uncovering the earth oven be careful not to let any dirt slip down inside on top of the moist food (the whole reason for the layer of cardboard or sheets). As that last layer of leaves is raked off you’ll be greeted with a steamy heavenly scent, a benign spirit of a delicious thing to come. There’s something magical about an earth oven. The way such flavors blend together, where even corned beef or mutton is transformed into an epicurean’s dish.
A closing word on earth oven cooking
To behave like a true native, use only the silverware provided by nature at the end of your palms. A well-bred “northerner” might snub his nose at the unmannerly thought of eating with only his fingers, but the free primitives were under no such restrictions. Try it, and in a very short while you’ll discover that food actually tastes better when eaten this way.
You will not regret learning a new skill and the knowledge of building an earth oven will stay with you forever. When our society screws up and we return to fighting each other with sticks and stones, you’ll have a pace in the newly formed community as the new cook.