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Ulu is considered one of the canoe fruits, one of the plants considered important enough to the earliest Polynesian settlers to have brought it in their canoes, traveling to Hawaii from Oceania. It is widespread throughout Asia and the South Pacific. Ulu belongs to the Moraceae (fig or mulberry) family. The fruit is actually thousands of little fruit growing together around a core to form a ball with polygonal markings at each fruit boundary. The breadfruit tree is easily recognized by its bright dark-green leathery palmate or ruffled leaves, which are deeply lobed and can be up to three feet long. The branches reach out to a span of 30 to 60 feet.
Why eat Ulu? It’s delicious and nutritious. Some refer to it as the “potato of the Pacific” however, when roasted, I think it resembles a plantain more than a potato. It’s high in complex carbohydrates, low in fat, gluten-free, provides dietary fiber, calcium, copper, magnesium, potassium, thiamin and vitamins A and C. It’s simple to cook with, freezes well and lends itself to almost any kitchen or cooking style. Ulu is low maintenance to grow and produces high yields. Definitely a sustainable food for Kauai. It is also an important cultural food. Historically, the tree’s trunk, leaves, flowers and sap provided timber, medicine, fiber, shade, caulking, glue, mosquito repellant, sandpaper and wood for furnishings, surfboards and canoes. The National Tropical Botanical Garden website provides fascinating information as well as recipes for this tropical super food.
Ulu is quite versatile and can be cooked at a couple different stages of it’s life cycle for different results. One stage is when it is mature and somewhat ripe just starting to get soft to the touch. After cooking it resembles the flavor and texture of a potato or plantain. Another stage is when it is very ripe and soft before it’s been cooked. Just touching it will cause it to indent and your fingers to push right through. This is the very sweet, pasty dessert stage.
There are several different ways to cook the different stages of ulu. It can be boiled, baked, stewed, fried, broiled, you name it. Determining when your ulu is perfectly ripe for the dish you would like to make, might take a little practice. It did for me anyway. I had a few trial and errors before deciding what I deemed “perfectly ripe”. When the ulu is just soft to the touch it can be peeled, cored and is ready for use. At this stage it will act as a “potato” type starch. Once this soft ripening occurs it continues to ripen extremely rapidly however. If you want to cook your ulu at this stage it has to be done that day or it will ripen to the point of the dessert stage by the next day. I have refrigerated my perfectly ripe ulus or cooked them all at once and then refrigerated them to stop the ripening process.
Just after ripening the skin is easy to remove. Simply shave it off with a knife as you would do an orange. Cut it in half lengthwise and remove the core. Cut away 1/2 inch of the area that was connected to the core.
Toss in olive oil, salt and garlic and roast it for 30-40 minutes at 350. The garlic can be chopped, left whole, peeled or unpeeled. After it’s cooled a little I toss it with fresh herbs. The just ripe ulu that resembles a potato has a very mild, neutral flavor and will mostly absorb whatever herbs and seasonings you are using.
This is my favorite preparation. It’s lovely tossed with tarragon and basil. I often serve it in a green salad making the salad a bit heartier. I also like to make a mash and serve under eggs, fish, beef or pork. This can be done by placing baked ulu in a food processor and seasoning with salt, garlic and fresh herbs. Ulu hummus is another preparation I love adding lemon, garlic, salt, and parsley to the baked ulu and processing until smooth and creamy.
The most ripe ulu is extremely sweet. It is so soft the entire core can be removed by pulling on the stem. Once the stem and core are removed rub butter and cinnamon into the center where the core was. Bake the whole ulu for 45 minutes at 350. After baking, cut in half and scoop out the meat for a thick, custardy treat.
I will have many more ulu recipes and preparations in the months to come. It’s ulu season!!!!!
A hui hou!