It’s a smoky, savoury yet sweet smell with a tantalising hint of coconut that has been around for as long as Samoan people have lived on these islands – more than 3,000 years.
In fact, delve a bit deeper in a small Samoan village, and you’ll find there’s probably very little in the way of cooking equipment there at all, so umu is still relied on as a staple cooking method.
Variations of umu can be found throughout the Pacific, such as the hangi in New Zealand, but each has its own unique style.
Because preparing an umu takes considerable time, it is not exactly a spur of the moment way of cooking, and one umu will feed many people in the family, or village. It’s easy to see why doing this preparation, and food in general, is a central part of Fa’a Samoa – the Samoan way.
So what is an umu, and how do you cook food in it? We explain the stages of preparing a deeply traditional, truly delicious Samoan feast.
The heat in an umu comes from heated volcanic rocks, which in turn are heated by fire lit underneath them well before the food comes near the umu.
Volcanic rocks are favoured for their ability to hold heat for a long time. An umu fire is tightly packed, and ready when the burning wood and coconut husks have been reduced to coal.
Getting an umu ready takes time and this prep work is traditionally done by the men, who have to get up very early on Sundays to start the process so there is an umu feast ready in time for the all-important Sunday lunch.
To ensure the food is ready to go when the stones are perfectly heated, it is all prepared before loading up of the umu begins.
This preparation can take many hours, particularly if key ingredients like pork are freshly slaughtered and butchered for the occasion.
An umu may contain meats such as chicken or pork, seafood including different types of fish or octopus placed in half coconut shell ‘bowls’ with coconut cream, a variety of vegetables and fruit like talo (taro), ulu (breadfruit) and unripe bananas (fa’i). Palusami is an umu standard - coconut milk mixed with onions is wrapped in taro leaves then banana leaves to create rich, tasty parcels.
To aid the cooking process, flavour the food and prevent it from drying out, coconut cream is added and the whole lot wrapped in coconut and banana leaves, individually and as a whole.
In a swift operation, the top layer of volcanic rocks are removed, the food placed on, and hot rocks put carefully on top.
That is then covered with banana leaves or mats to seal in the heat and cook the food.
The umu takes from half an hour to an hour to cook, all the while spreading very tempting cooking smells.
Traditionally this is the time when baskets and plates are woven from coconut fronds.
When it is decided that the food is ready, the top rocks are removed and the food is placed in the baskets.
Finally, it’s time to eat.
In front of you will be a delicious, steaming array of food smothered in coconut cream and cooked to perfection with smoky flavours. Grab your plate and dig in. It doesn’t get more authentic Samoa than that.