Discovering Breadfruit on Big Island

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Discovering Breadfruit on Big Island

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island
Oct 08, 2012

Now, it seems, I have breadfruit coming out my ears.

I spend the first Sunday of every month at Makauwahi Cave Reserve on Kauai's south shore along the Mahaulepu Coastline where there's an unusual limestone cave system that's revealed a myriad of scientific discoveries.

One not-so-rare discovery that I made there yesterday was breadfruit. This discovery came after a weekend on Big Island enjoying the Breadfruit Festival, where I discovered 1) numerous tasty ways to eat breadfruit; and 2) an ancient agro-forest once ran a full 1/2 mile wide by 18 miles long growing--seat belts low and tight, people--breadfruit. 

There are many reasons why that size and shape of this ancient breadfruit growing band are intriguing, the foremost to Noa Lincoln probably being that it shows clear evidence of a Hawaiian nation long before King Kamehameha collected the Hawaiian Islands under his reign in 1810. It shows breadfruit crossed family plots. It crossed traditional Hawaiian ahupuaa boundaries. It crossed political lines. All this by the mid-1400s.

Breadfruit wasn't the only thing grown in this well-planned agricultural system. Below it, along the dry coastline, pili grass was grown. Above it, at a higher, more moderate elevation, taro, sweet potatoes and other crops grew. Higher still, in the forest, farmers planted bananas and yams. The four biogeographical bands made up a 50-square-mile network known as the Kona Field System. 

Those industrious Hawaiians were not only great fishermen. Not only industrious at engineering fishponds along the ocean's edge. Not only ingenious at directing the flow of fresh water through hand-made irrigation waterways. Adept at sculpting steep land into terraced taro fields. And great surfers. But great dryland farmers, as well.

Noa Lincoln made those points in a talk titled "Kalu'ulu: The Ancient Kona Breaqdfruit Belt." Noa is a friendly, young man who wears his passion on his sleeve and leaves an infectious smile in his wake. At least, when he is talking about 'ulu, the Hawaiian word for breadfruit, and that's about all I heard him talk about.

Discovery #4: Hawaiians pound 'ulu the same way they pound taro. They call it 'ulu poi.

Discover #5: I like it.

But that's not all.

The Breadfruit Festival was held at Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook, and the garden is a good enough discovery (#6) as any. Don't wait for the next Breadfruit Festival to visit. (Because that's going to be on Kauai.)

At the 15-acre garden, there are 200 species of endemic, indigenous, and Polynesian-introduced plants spread throughout four biogeographical bands. There is even remnant stonework features of the Kona Field System preserved here. That, in and of itself, makes for an interesting day.

But on the day I was there, the day of the Breadfruit Festival, there was a Hawaiian cultural area where men sat pounding 'ulu and visitors could sit opposite, roll up their sleeves and pound away. But what caught my heart and gave it a smile was the six-year-old boy with black-framed glasses with his own child-sized, poi pounder. And get this: He was teaching another boy his age how to do it--how to hold the poi pounder, dip his hand in water--flick it--and dampen the bottom of the stone. His grandfather said the young ones learn best from one another.

His grandpa also said the breadfruit in Kona "felt" different than the breadfruit he was used to pounding from his homeland in Kalapana.

Discovery #7. Not all breadfruit is alike. According to an 'ulu cookbook I picked up at the festival, the key is knowing how to prepare your variety of breadfruit depending on when you pick it--whether it's immature, green, mature or ripe. While the Hawaiians were pounding 'ulu, around the corner under the Samoan tent, they were roasting breadfruit whole on a grill and serving it up in a bath of coconut milk. (I went back for more.)

There are over 120 different varieties of breadruit planted on Maui at Kahanu Garden, and according to Hawaii celebrity chef Sam Choy, they don't all taste alike. Many people compare breadfruit to potatoes. But you wouldn't mash round, red potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner, unless, of course, you want thick and lumpy mashed potatoes.

Speaking of Sam Choy, I discovered (#8) that he's a real comedian. He's also the anti-chef. He happily passed out four-color copies of the two dishes he made in front of a crowd of 80--Seafood 'Ulu Salad with Banana and Okinawan Sweet Potato and Hawaiian Style 'Ulu Chowder.

When I told people I was going to a breadfruit festival, I got some interesting looks. The person would crease their brow, crinkle their nose and ask, “Breadfruit? Really? Are they going to serve it?” Or, they’d make the same face, maybe tilt their head, as well, and ask, “A festival? For breadfruit?” One couldn’t even spit out the words whirling through her head.

But here’s my final discovery (#9) about breadfruit. It’s a little like Forest Gump’s business partner’s Bubba’s shrimp. You’ve got your ‘ulu poi, ‘ulu hummus, spicy ‘ulu poke, ‘ulu chips, ‘ulu dip, ‘ulu cooked in coconut milk and ‘ulu wonton wraps. You’ve got your ‘ulu seafood chowder, ‘ulu salad, ‘ulu fries and ‘ulu biscuits. You’ve got your yellow ‘ulu curry, ‘ulu au gratin with three cheeses and ham, savory ‘ulu bake and ‘ulu lasagna. And, then, you have your ‘ulu pie, ‘ulu pumpkin pie, ‘ulu custard pie, ‘ulu pops and ‘ulu ice cream. 

In Hawaii, that’s cause for a festival, complete with hula, slack key and ukulele performances.

*This blog post inspired by Discoverer's Day.


Susan | Oct 09, 2012 03:55 PM

So, did you get your tree? What variety of breadfruit did you choose? Here's a new idea, from last night's book group Octoberfest, complements of, who else, Laurel: Savory Breadfruit Latkes (pancakes). I'm sending this posting link to Andee, she'll love it and probably plan next year's visit around the Kauai Breadfruit Festival. Do you know the dates?

Kim | Oct 10, 2012 04:00 PM

The variety of 'ulu trees they were selling was ma'afala. All I know of next year's festival is it sounds like it'll be in September. When I get an actual date, I'll let you know. It's a good reason to visit.

Damon | Oct 23, 2012 01:13 PM

The "6-Year-old boy" is my son and he's actually 8. His name is Hayden Konanui-Tucker.

Kim | Oct 30, 2012 01:04 PM

Damon, that's fabulous. So glad to "meet" you here. And I thoroughly enjoyed watching your son, as well as, the numerous other children working and sharing at the festival. And, please tell Hayden that I apologize about getting his age wrong! Mahalo for your comment.

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