Hele mai ‘ai ka ulu!
The most plentiful and most likely to be free local food you may never have tasted, or don’t think to use is, without question, ‘ulu, breadfruit.
Unless you are a South Pacific Islander, you probably “know” two things about breadfruit: It’s green. And it’s bland. And it’s likely to be free because, believing as you do, your neighbor with a tree probably never picks the fruit. Make friends.
Because by saying ‘ulu is green and bland, you’re partly right and partly wrong.
As with most families of plants, the name breadfruit covers a world of members of the Artocarpus altilis group, including some that are yellow when ripe–one Society Island variety turns pink or orangey brown. Most breadfruit grow paler in color when they’re ripe.
And as to blandness, Kaua’i-based horticultural researcher Diane Ragone of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute says there is considerable range in flavor among ‘ulu.
The Hawaiian variety, for example, is largish, starchy and dense, she said. But the Samoan maafala is smaller, easier to manage as a tree, and has a more desirable texture and flavor.
And, one must ask, what’s wrong with bland? “If you gave someone a bowl of white rice, they would say the same thing,” said Ragone, who has been studying breadfruit for more than 20 years. What matters is what the flavors with which it’s combined.
She has a chef-friend who likes the blandness: “It is called culinary art and I consider breadfruit a canvas. You can do anything with it,” her friend said.
The other day, for example, chef Alejandro Briceño of Prima made a breadfruit dessert so elaborate it looked like a bird of paradise taking off from a sea of chocolate. He used breadfruit–which he compares, texturally and in sweetness, to chestnut, a European and Japanese confectionary favorite–in several forms: in an agar agar-based jelly, in a dried and powdered meringue, in a pastry cream with caramelized honey, and as chips (the “leaves” of the bird of paradise).
The chestnut comparison is useful: Bake or boil some breadfruit. Try a piece or two. Chew slowly and consider. What is it like, in taste and texture? What might it be substituted for? In what sorts of dishes might it be used?
Ragone thinks of breadfruit as closest to potato: Try it in a stew or mashed with milk and butter.
Chef Mark Noguchi once made a breadfruit yokan (a traditional Japanese sweet jellied dessert): cooked the breadfruit in syrup and whipped it. Grate it and make latkes (Jewish-style potato pancakes). Or prepare mayo-based breadfruit salad.
The chief interest in breadfruit as a sustainable crop. ‘Ulu grows quickly and well in Hawaii, has relatively few pest or disease problems, can be pruned and managed to grow to a size that allows harvesting with a long-handled mango picker, and one tree can produce 500 pounds of fruit. It provides not only shade but beauty. It’s rich in carbohydrates and a good source of vitamins and minerals.
Ragone says the challenge for advocates of this versatile plan is educating home cooks, and getting trees into people’s yards. A Ho’oulu ka ‘Ulu Project (“Flourishing the Breadfruit”) will provide 4,000 free starts to many: Native Hawaiians, South Pacific Islanders and low-income gardeners.
Education will come in the form of assisting people to recognize varieties (as we do with mango, for example), teaching them how to pick and store breadfruit and suggesting ways to prepare it.
Houlu ka ‘Ulu has a new cookbook for that purpose. In periodic cook-offs at their gardens (the main breadfruit collection is near Hana, Maui, with 150-plus varieties), the Institute has collected more than 400 recipes, of which the cookbook holds just a fraction.
Ragone is asked why one always reads that breadfruit came a distant third in Hawaiian preference: kalo (taro) first, ‘uala (sweet potato), ‘ulu in time of famine. “If breadfruit had not been used by Hawaiians, there wouldn’t be so many songs and legends about it,” she said, or so much mythology or imagery.
It is said, for example, that the great god Ku turned himself into breadfruit to feed his people when they hungered. “There’s a wealth of knowledge about ‘ulu among Hawaiians that has not been tapped,” Ragone said, noting that some Hawaiian elders have come forward to help the Breadfruit Institute and Hooulu ka ‘Ulu learn more.
Said Ragone: “I think we’re at a critical point where we’re starting to see a shift in people’s interest in ‘ulu.”