Before I was asked to judge the breadfruit cook-off at Hana's week-long Festivals of Aloha in October, I had never actually sampled the fruit, a member of the fig family.
Ulu, as it is called in Hawaiian, is a three-pound globe with green patchy skin, a cross between a potato and a banana. The noggin-sized fruit's tough exterior belies a starchy interior that is creamy sweet when overripe.
The breadfruit tree, one of the "canoe crops" brought to Hawaii by Polynesian explorers, grows throughout Maui's lush mountainsides and has offered shade and sustenance for centuries. Because ulu grows so easily in the tropics and can be used as a starch or a sweet, its proponents believe it can feed the world's hungry.
But there I was in Hana, with some of Maui's top chefs, farmers and foodies to sample local residents' creative uses for what many are calling the next wonder food.
As I sampled breadfruit in all its incarnations — kimchi, enchiladas, tamales, soups and Greek salad — I talked with James Simpliciano, a former chef at Maui's massive Westin complex who, after years of serving imported cuisine to travelers, started his own farm, Simpli-fresh. He relies on ancient farming methods to cultivate Hawaii's ancient crops, including ulu.
As a chef he used breadfruit as a potato replacement in the tamales I was sampling; as a farmer he hopes Hawaiians can lessen their dependence on imported food by returning to the produce of their past — Hawaii currently imports 92% of its produce, livestock and dairy products.
The crowds began to gather around the tables filled with colorful appetizers and entrees, many of them garnished with hibiscus flowers or ti leaves. What was most notable about ulu was that, like tofu, it didn't dominate a dish. The fruit adds texture, thickness and, more important, protein and carbohydrates necessary for a healthful diet, said Ian Cole, manager and curator of the National Tropical Botanical Garden's Breadfruit Institute in Hana. He led me to the dessert table, where I marveled at pies, cakes and truffles, all made with breadfruit.
The next day, at Cole's invitation, I toured the Breadfruit Institute at Kahanu Garden, which manages the world's largest collection of breadfruit trees (the garden features 285, with 120 varieties from 43 Pacific islands) as part of its initiative to promote its use for food and reforestation.
Maui chefs are beginning to notice ulu's qualities too. At the open-air Kauiki Dining Room at the upscale Travaasa Hana resort, executive chef Derek Watanabe steams, then bathes young breadfruit in vinegar, oil and lemon before offering it to diners as a crunchy salad. In another dish he mixes mashed breadfruit into a savory crab cake.
At Mama's Fish House in Paia, diners are treated to a lobster guacamole paired with ulu chips, a popular version of the tricky starch. And rumor has it that Merriman's in Kapalua and Wailea's Monkeypod Kitchen serve John Cadman's Pono Pie, a luscious dessert showcasing the sweetest breadfruit.
As for cook-it-yourself options, ulu is sometimes available at the Kula farmers market, and you can also find it alongside the imported organic potatoes and apples at Mana Foods in Paia.
Before leaving the island, I followed Cole's suggestion and visited the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens in Kahului, where abundant ulu trees grow in an industrial section of the city. As part of its mission to protect Maui's plants and cultural heritage, it offers workshops on how to make tapa cloth, print blocks, surfboards and poi-pounding boards all from the leaves and wood of ulu trees.
I popped into Maui Coffee Roasters for a last-minute bag of beans, where I noticed a specials board touting Cadman's Pono Pies, He not only crafts the finest breadfruit treats in the state, he also makes a mean ulu hummus for sale at local markets. I grabbed a slice of pie to go, because now that I had tasted breadfruit in all its glory, I couldn't pass up the chance for just one more bite.
If you go:
THE BEST WAY TO MAUI
From LAX, nonstop service to Kahului, Maui, is offered on American, Delta, Hawaiian and United, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on Alaska, American, Delta and United. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $586, including all taxes and fees.
Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, 150 Kanaloa, Kahului; (808) 249-2798, http://www.mnbg.org. Both a cultural hub and a paradise for naturalists. Tour the gardens, then take a course to craft art out of breadfruit. $5 admission. On Aug. 15 Ian Cole will discuss the cultural history of ulu, planting, harvesting, preparing, and eating. An ulu-based tasting menu prepared by John Cadman of Pono Pies is included. $45 for visitors; $20 for members. Call for reservations.
Breadfruit Institute and Kahanu Garden, 650 Ulaino Road, Hana; (808) 248-8912, http://www.ntbg.org. Self-guided and escorted tours of Hana's hidden garden of Eden promise a world-class education on ulu, ocean views and the chance to view ancient sacred ruins. Tours begin at $10.