Maui News –
Lui K. Hokoana –
One of the “canoe crops” brought by Polynesians to Hawaii, possibly as early as the third century, ‘ulu (breadfruit) is a food decidedly suited to our times. The mature fruit is a nutritious and adaptable substitute for a potato. It can be boiled, steamed, baked, fried, even made into crunchy ‘ulu chips. Maybe some of you opted for mashed ‘ulu rather than the traditional mashed potatoes on your Thanksgiving table. Young fruit can be pickled. Ripe — even overripe — fruit is sweet and creamy and delicious in desserts. The wood from ‘ulu trees is light in weight and was multipurpose in ancient Hawaii. The National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute at Kahanu Gardens in Hana grows almost 100 varieties.
And those ‘ulu trees in Hana is where this story begins. It may appear to be a long — LONG — way from raising bison on the Great Plains of the U.S. Mainland to cultivating ‘ulu in Hana. But agriculture is agriculture, according to Hana Ranch Manager Duane Lammers who actually traveled that road. “John Cadman (a chef and one of Maui’s most ardent ‘ulu advocates) brought us our first trees from Kahanu Gardens and he introduced us to the ‘Ulu Co-Operative on Hawaii island,” explains Lammers.
“This is the third year of production and of our 100 trees, 87 are producing full tilt,” says Lammers. The fruit has to be shipped to the co-op on Hawaii island for processing, which is unwieldy at best. “With all the disruption Young Brothers was starting to experience when the pandemic hit us, I knew it was going to get worse.” When he expressed that concern to Chef Gary Johnson, who has worked at several Maui restaurants and has done a lot of work with the Ranch, Johnson introduced him to Chris Speere who heads up our Maui Food Innovation Center.
“I’d been through the Maui Food Innovation program myself,” says Johnson who is now the garden coordinator for Grow Some Good, a program in multiple Maui schools. “Fortunately, I knew a lot of the players who would need to be involved. Along with Chris, we were able to fast track the partnership, including with the Department of Health.”
And so one Saturday morning in early October, a truck pulled up to the loading dock at the Food Innovation Center and delivered about 2,000 pounds (yes, a ton) of ‘ulu. Several of our culinary arts students were waiting. Over the course of the weekend — under the supervision of Speere and Johnson — they washed it, weighed it, cooked it in 350-pound batches to an internal temperature of 135 degrees Fahreheit, cut the ‘ulu in half, put them on sheet trays on rolling racks, rolled them into the walk-in refrigerator, cooled them, quartered them, seeded them, weighed them again, and froze them. The following week, they were packed in 10-pound bags, then 40-pound cases, labeled and put back into the freezer. Ready to distribute. Ready to prepare, serve, and eat. That process has taken place every weekend since then and will continue through December.
Jacob Devlin is in his final semester of our Culinary Arts Program. “A friend of mine was working with Nicolette van der Lee (director of the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui) who was looking for someone to work with native Hawaiian vegetables and plants. I was introduced to Chris Speere and started working on the ‘ulu project.” he says. “I had never heard of ‘ulu before. Now, I’ve experimented with it in stir-fries and even in desserts. And I’ve made ‘ulu scones!”
First year culinary arts student Phrincess Constantino wasn’t really familiar with ‘ulu, either. “In high school, I had worked with Chris Speere on an internship at the Innovation Center. So, when one of my professors asked if anyone was interested in the ‘ulu project, I thought it would be a good way to get some experience in a commercial kitchen. It’s been a good and interesting experience.”
The upshot? “With little lead time, the college provided us great information, leadership, and enthusiastic students,” says Lammers. “It all serves as proof of concept for us and we’re now looking at the possibility of building a processing plant for ‘ulu and for other products, as well, right here in Hana.”
And for Chef Johnson? “My purpose in this is to create a strong channel of locally grown canoe crops to be able to proliferate on the island for our food security and sustainability. And I want ‘ulu to replace the potato in our diets.”
Oh, and those tons of ‘ulu? They’re being sold commercially by VIP Foodservice.
Sometimes it takes a village. And sometimes it takes an island.
For information about our Maui Food Innovation Center, please visit maui.hawaii.edu/foodinnovation; for more information about our Culinary Arts Program, please visit maui.hawaii.edu/culinary.