Packed with nutrients, the versatile canoe plant is making its way into a wide range of baked goods, snacks and more.
Those who are willing to get ‘Ulu, or Breadfruit are rewarded with nutrition and versatility. When mature, it has a starchy, firm quality of a potato, and can be baked and steamed, and eaten plain or buttered, or added to stews and chowders. When ripe, it’s sweet and custardy and can be eaten raw. Cooked breadfruit can also be pounded into a version of poi called ‘ulu pa‘i‘ai.
“The first time using it can be intimi- dating to people, but if you can work with a potato you can work with ‘ulu,” says Jennifer Hee, who with her sister Christina, are behind the nourishing and wholesome menu at Juicy Brew, also the source of the ‘ulu chowder available at Whole Foods Market’s hot bar. “It’s the most amazing ingredient. Our menu changes daily but we’ve made ‘ulu mac ’n’ cheese and cut it like a noodle to make lasagna. It can go into baked goods like mochi, cinnamon rolls, and we’ve also used it as pizza dough.”
With not much flavor on its own, it adapts well to spices and seasonings. Hee has been working with ‘ulu for eight years and has seen interest surge in that time. To help raise awareness, she said she gave out free ‘ulu and simple instructions for using it to everyone who came into the café last Thanksgiving.
The interest comes because of the role ‘ulu can play in increasing food security and agricultural sustainability around the world. On Kaua‘i, the Breadfruit Institute was started in 2003 “to promote the conservation, study, and use of breadfruit for food and reforestation.” The Institute is a member of the Alliance to End Hunger, a coalition of 90 corporations, non-profits, universities, individuals and religious groups working together to create solutions addressing global hunger.
‘Ulu was a staple food of ancient Polynesians, who included it in their cache of “canoe plants” that would sustain them on lengthy ocean journeys and as a staple crop to plant on lands they discovered, such as the Hawaiian Islands. Today’s nutritionists know that its healthfulness comes from its low fat and high vitamin C, B1, potassium and anti-inflammatory bioflavonoid content. It offers energy from carbohydrates that register as moderate on the glycemic index, meaning it doesn’t cause the quick spike in insulin and blood sugar levels as white rice, white bread, baked potatoes or corn. It’s also rich in fiber, which helps control cholesterol levels and blood pressure. It also has potential as a cancer-fighting food based on preliminary studies of ‘ulu extracts on skin and pancreatic cancer. Over time, the significance of ‘ulu was lost to the convenience of bread, rice and fast food.
“It’s weird to have grown up here and never eaten it until I became an adult,” Hee says.
To help remedy the situation, the Hawai‘i Department of Education ‘Aina Pono Harvest of the Month program helped to introduce ‘ulu and other local ingredients to school menus, based on the positive correlation between a healthy diet and academic performance. In the past two years, ‘ulu made its way onto the school menus in a kalua pork and spinach burrito, as well as an ‘ulu beef stew.
The return to the wisdom of our Polynesian roots led Brynn Foster, founder of Voyaging Foods, to start using taro flour 13 years ago when her son was born. She had learned that pediatric nurses recommended poi as a baby’s first solid food because of its high nutritional value, its digestible quality and because it is hypoallergenic.
“As a first-time mother, I was reading a lot of books about what to include in a baby’s diet. I learned about the top 10 allergens and realized I had to make my own food. Making taro flour seemed like a great alternative to commercial baby food.”
Her experiences led her to start her company, specializing in canoe plant flours, initially taro, and recently, ‘ulu.
Her first ‘ulu product was a pancake mix packaged for the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Hokule‘a world tour that ended last summer. The ‘ulu flour became available to the public recently, through bulk purchasing at Down to Earth Maui and Waiwai Collective, in the historic Varsity Theater building.
“I’m realizing we’re part of a movement. Education takes a while but we’re in it for the long haul. I’m glad people are starting to pay attention.”
‘Ulu is still not mainstream enough to be found readily in grocery stores. It is also a seasonal fruit and there can be two month stretches when none is available. O‘ahu recently entered a dry spell, but Hee says many more farmers are experimenting with different varieties to ensure a steady year-round supply.
Among companies helping to address demands is the Captain Cook, Hawai‘i Island-based Hawai’i ‘Ulu Cooperative started by Donna Shapiro and her husband in 2016 to help people reenvision ‘ulu as a dietary staple. The co-op helps small farmers to scale up production and distribution to supply schools, hospitals, restaurants and other food service operations. For those who want to try cooking with ‘ulu, without the fuss, they also make quantities of diced, sliced, quartered and mashed fruit available for purchase online.
For those who simply want to give ‘ulu a try, the fruit is offered in chip and Hawaiian hummus form by ‘Ulu Mana, available at farmers’ markets listed on the company’s website, as well as supermarkets and health food stores.
HI 5 Ulu also offers ‘ulu chips in salted, garlic butter and Sriracha flavors, ‘ulu poi, ‘ulolo (comparable to kulolo) and ‘ulu waffles at the Pearlridge Farmer’s Market from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Their chips, when in season, can also be found at Hawaiian Chip Co., at 1928 Republican St.
When ripe, ‘ulu is sweet, custardy and can be eaten raw. When cooked, breadfruit can also be pounded into a version of poi called