Explore Blog

Underground Earth Ovens

By Arcia Tecun

Many cultures around the world cook in underground earth ovens. We have just had our first run at this cooking method at the Nature Center at Pia Okwai. The hope and plan is to have a permanent structure one day that can be used by communities familiar with this method as well as for educational purposes. Samoana Matagi is a nature center host who led our inaugural underground earth oven cook and feed during this final week of June 2024.

Underground earth ovens generally are cooking pits that work by heating stones with fire followed by placing food on top of them and then insulating the heat for the duration of cooking. Once it has been long enough the food is uncovered and the community feasts. Several Indigenous groups of the Great Basin, Southwest and California, among others have long traditions of using ‘pit ovens’ such as these. 

Peoples of the Moana/Wansolwara (Oceania) also cook with a variety of approaches to this method. There are several names for underground/earth oven/hot stone cooking across the Moana/Wansolwara including: Lovo (Viti/Fiji), Umu (Tonga, Sāmoa), Imu (Hawai‘i), Hāngī (Aotearoa), Ahima‘a (Tahiti), and Mumu (Papua). Hāngī master Rewi Spraggon (Te Kawerau a Maki) has been a strong advocate for nurturing the art of this cooking method and its cultural and spiritual significance in Aotearoa. He has explained that Hāngī in te reo Māori is a compound word made up of hā, which means the “breath of life”, and ngī, which means “the spark or essence of the whenua (land)”. Across the Moana/Wansolwara there are adaptations and variations for this cooking method and practice, including in the moment cooking and more permanent structures for repeated cooking that we draw inspiration from.

There are also other Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and Abya Yala (The America’s, North and South) who use underground earth ovens. Sometimes they are referred to in the Spanish language as “Olla de Tierra” (Earth Pot) or “Orno Artesanal” (Artisanal Oven). They are known by Runakuna/Nunakuna (The people in Quechua) as “pachamanka”, which is a compound word derived from pacha which means “earth” and manka which means “pot”. In the Mayan territories there is also a connection between sweat/steam baths (both common and ceremonial ones) and underground earth ovens cooked with steam from hot rocks. The word in Maya T’aan (Yucatec-Maya language) is Pib/Piíb, which is both the word for a sweat/steam bath and for an underground earth oven. In the highland Maya region it is known as Tuj/Tuh in the K’iche’ language, which also means both sweat/steam bath and underground earth oven.

Each of these unique yet similar traditions have deep cultural connections and living practices with underground earth oven cooking and complex significance and meaning tied to them. This year’s (2024) Matariki celebration (New Year in Maramataka Māori – Māori Calendar) in Aotearoa is on June 28th and we are grateful to have been able to have an inaugural umu event and feast during this time. Check out this short video of our Tufuga Umu (Underground Earth Oven Master) Samoana Matagi at the Nature Center at Pia Okwai preparing a feast with some help from Ezra, Taine, Isiah and myself. 

*Special Thanks to the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities Programme for their support of this project.

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