A Hawaiian delicacy of the past may be the food of the future.
Standing beneath the breadfruit trees, we watch the rain rush in from the sea, as it does here in East Maui. A curtain of mist advances; then we hear the soft roar as the first fat drops strike our faces. Ducking deeper under the tree canopy, we’re able to stay almost dry. The same interlocking leaves that provide shade at midday act as an umbrella during cloudbursts.
I’m at Kahanu Garden with Ian Cole, one of three employees of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute. We’re sheltered under the elegant, sixty-foot-tall trees that stand at the base of Pi‘ilanihale, the largest heiau (temple) in Hawai‘i. This mind-bending, three-acre archeological site dates back to the fourteenth century; its attending orchard is just as ancient. These particular breadfruit trees are the grandchildren of those planted to feed bygone kings and queens. After hundreds of years, this pre-Contact grove is still producing food. If only we remembered how to eat it.
Breadfruit is still beloved in Samoa and Tonga, where it’s salted and steamed or mashed with coconut. But here in Hawai‘i, the nutrient-packed Polynesian staple has fallen so far out of fashion it’s hard to find. Grocery stores don’t carry it. It’s a special-order item from distributors like Kula Produce. People with backyard breadfruit trees fret over the bright green, smallish volleyballs rotting on their lawn. Little do they know that they’re sitting on a resource that could very well feed the world. Luckily, several dedicated people are working to restore breadfruit to its rightful place, both on the plate and in the culture.
The rain lets up and Cole shows me around. The sandy-haired Florida transplant is easygoing enough to acclimate to sleepy Hana, but his ample energy is focused on a single goal: to get more people growing and eating breadfruit. Aside from the massive heiau, Kahanu Garden is home to the largest breadfruit collection in the world, which Cole manages: over 120 varieties from thirty-one Pacific islands. This living museum is the vision of one woman, Cole’s boss, Diane Ragone. Back in the 1980s, she island-hopped across Oceania to personally collect breadfruit samples, each one bearing unique characteristics. The Marquesas offered the intrepid botanist fifty-five varieties. Tahiti gave her dozens. Hawai‘i has only ever had just one: ‘ulu.
As it turns out, one breadfruit can feed a family, and one variety a people. Packed in coconut-husk fiber and dry leaves, ‘ulu accompanied the Polynesian voyagers in their canoes bound for Hawai‘i. Long domesticated, the seedless fruit relies on human cultivation. And cultivate it they did. The first Hawaiians planted ‘ulu orchards that stretched for miles. In the trees’ dappled shade, they grew bananas, sweet potatoes, and wauke (paper mulberry). The largest of these agroforests, the so-called “breadfruit belt” in Kona on the island of Hawai‘i, numbered around 144,000 trees.
In 1794, surgeon-naturalist Archibald Menzies of HMS Discovery described marching up from Kealakekua Bay in the “scorching heat . . . across rugged porous lava . . . when we entered the breadfruit plantations whose spreading trees with beautiful foliage were scattered . . . along the side of the mountain as far as we could see.”
Smaller ‘ulu groves flourished across the archipelago, including one stretching from Lahaina to Olowalu on Maui’s west side. “Halau Lahaina, malu i ka ‘ulu,” says the Hawaiian proverb: “Lahaina is like a large house shaded by breadfruit trees.” The small but authoritative book Hawaiian Breadfruit states that pre-Contact orchards produced an estimated 100,000 tons of fruit annually, capable of sustaining hundreds of thousands of people.
What happened? Cole shrugs. “Something made breadfruit less important to the ali‘i [royalty],” he says. “No one knows why — none of the kupuna [elders] we’ve asked. It’s a mystery.”
Breadfruit has always taken a backseat to kalo (taro) in Hawai‘i — in contrast with other Polynesian cultures. But the true significance of ‘ulu in these Islands has likely been underestimated. One mo‘olelo (story) credits the god Ku for introducing ‘ulu to Hawai‘i. During a famine, Ku witnessed his mortal family’s suffering and sacrificed himself, to be reborn as an ‘ulu tree. Hawaiian maidens were thus advised to “Nana no a ka ‘ulu i paki kepau,” or “Look for the gummy breadfruit,” meaning they should marry mature men of substance, like Ku, who would provide for them.
Mythologists and botanists agree on this point: breadfruit trees make a fine inheritance. One of the most influential naturalists of the eighteenth century, Sir Joseph Banks, commented that “Regarding food, if a man plant ten [breadfruit] trees in his life, he would completely fulfill his duty to his own as well as future generations. . . .”
At the Breadfruit Institute, Cole and Ragone endeavor to fulfill their duty, not just in Hawai‘i, but around the globe. Their aim? Ending world hunger — a goal that might not be as farfetched as it sounds. They’ve already shipped breadfruit starts to malnourished communities in Zimbabwe, Honduras, Ghana, and Haiti.
Breadfruit is rich in carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and essential minerals. According to Cole, a serving of breadfruit has the equivalent potassium of two-and-a-half potatoes, ten bananas or twenty bowls of white rice. Compared to other starchy crops, breadfruit is superior due, in part, to its verticality. Trees require less land and far less effort to cultivate than do other dietary staples.
“I’d much rather go pick my starch from a tree than grow a field of wheat or potatoes,” says Ragone.
In Hawai‘i, she and her coworkers have helped plant 4,000 trees. The Institute partners with the Hawai‘i Homegrown Food Network to reawaken the community’s deep-rooted yet dormant love for ‘ulu. As Ho‘oulu ka ‘Ulu, they host annual breadfruit festivals on Kaua‘i and the Big Island, and ‘ulu-cooking competitions in Hana. They’ve published the winning recipes in a book that celebrates ‘ulu as a delicious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food.
“If you had to pick one Hawaiian food that showcases sustainability, it would be ‘ulu — even more than kalo,” says recent breadfruit convert John Cadman, who won the grand prize at a 2012 cook-off with ‘ulu wontons.
Cadman is food-service manager for Kamehameha School’s Maui campus. The bright-eyed surfer is passionate about fresh, wholesome food and ‘ulu tops his list. “It’s the most abundant food producer,” he says. “It’s self-pollinating, and it grows in beach sand.”
He’s teamed up with Cole to educate students and teachers at the Hawaiian school, recalibrating their palates to breadfruit’s allure, one meal at a time. Shortly after Cadman started at Kamehameha two years ago, the cafeteria kitchen began receiving 100-pound deliveries of ‘ulu from Kahanu Gardens. “That’s just one day’s feeding!” Cadman laughs. The first time he served a riff on potato salad with ‘ulu standing in as the starch, he says, “I got fifty emails saying ‘hana hou’ [one more time] and calling it the hit of the decade.”
During a staff service day this past February, Cadman invited Cole to talk about breadfruit — its history and future in the Islands. The audience (myself included) was amazed. Then we got cooking. Cole had brought a dozen varieties for us to taste. The cafeteria kitchen transformed into an impromptu episode of Top Chef. Teachers and administrators peeled and cored the unfamiliar fruits, as if cutting into dinosaur eggs. Comparable to potato, ‘ulu can be roasted, boiled, baked, or fried with similarly satisfying results. One woman retrieved the school’s stone poi pounder and began methodically pounding steamed ulu into a creamy yellow poi. Another made ‘ulu hummus—an award-winning recipe gleaned from the Ho‘oulu ka ‘Ulu cookbook.
Inspired, I brought home two ‘ulu in varying stages of ripeness. The moderately ripe specimen was starchy and firm. I steamed it, dicing half to toss into tacos, and mashed the other half for fried croquettes. The verdict: delectable. And for dessert? ‘Ulu, of course. Fully ripe ‘ulu is sweet, tangy, and doughy — as pliant as unbaked bread. I ate this raw, with sticky fingers. (Cadman recommends throwing it into a food processor with almond milk, honey, and cacao for a sweet pudding.) With just two fruits, I made a three-course meal for four.
After these experiments, I marveled at breadfruit’s spotty history over the last few centuries. Most famously, it was the impetus for Captain Bligh’s ill-fated trip to Tahiti in 1789 on the Bounty. His mission (at Sir Joseph Banks’s urging) was to bring breadfruit saplings back to the West Indies to feed sugar-plantation slaves. Not only did Bligh lose his ship to mutiny, but years later, when he finally fulfilled his orders, the Jamaican slaves reportedly refused to eat the fruit. In the early 1900s, Hawaiian writer W.S. Lokai claimed there were three kinds of breadfruit: rat-eaten, wind-stricken, and soggy.
Clearly, Lokai’s ancestors disagreed with his assessment. Early Hawaiians didn’t just feast on breadfruit; they used every part of the tree. Its wood became bowls, drums, and surfboards. Its sap plugged holes in canoes and was incorporated into medicines and musical instruments. Bird catchers smeared the sticky latex onto branches to entrap saffron-feathered honeycreepers. Rotund breadfruits inspired the game ‘ulu maika — Hawaiian bowling. The naturally abrasive leaves were sandpaper for fine woodwork. And the pounded bark became kapa, the soft, pliant cloth Hawaiians wore and slept on.
“‘Ulu [kapa] is from way back,” says master kapa maker Wesley Sen. “It can be made in less than an hour, which would be necessary for commoners. The ali‘i preferred wauke, which could be decorated.”
Around the same time Diane Ragone was poking around Polynesia for breadfruit varieties, Sen was researching the disappearing art of Hawaiian kapa-making with his colleague, Puanani Van Dorpe. They knew Hawaiians once made ‘ulu cloth, but they couldn’t locate anyone living who knew how to do it. So Sen gave it his best shot: fermenting ‘ulu bark, beating it into thin sheets, and applying the traditional watermarks. His finished product lives at Bishop Museum, the state’s repository of cultural artifacts.
Recently Sen hosted an ‘ulu kapa workshop at the Bailey Museum in Wailuku. First, he and his participants harvested ‘ulu bark from Kahanu Gardens, and kukui-tree roots from ‘Iao Valley for dye. Then they recreated the clothing of their forebears. Photos of the event reveal a remarkable diversity in texture and appearance.
“When you show Hawaiians an image of [themselves] standing regal in authentic costumes, they go, ‘Ahhhh . . . that’s how we were. That’s how we are.’ Something awakens in them,” says Sen. He’s looking forward to harvesting again at Kahanu Gardens, where, he says, “You get chicken skin. You can tell all of the ancestors are watching.”
Indeed, as I walk through the garden’s wet grounds, I catch the scent of ripening breadfruit. The breeze, still heavy with rain, seems to whisper, “Help yourself. We planted these for you.”