Breadfruit

A Hawaiian delicacy of the past may be the food of the future.

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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 ‘ulustanding 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.

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