One of our goals here at Kauai Seascapes Nursery is to introduce you to new plants. Or, if you’re already familiar with a plant, to teach you a thing or two you might not know.
I can’t think of a more perfect plant for this than Ulu. You may know Ulu by its more common name, breadfruit. Well, guess what? This fascinating and versatile edible plant is finally in season!
In today’s post, we’re going to teach you all about Ulu. Its history, uses, and (of course) some recipes.
Even if you’ve heard of this plant, there are probably a few things you didn’t know about it. So come along as we delve into the fascinating world of breadfruit!
All in the Name
“Bread” and “fruit” are two words you don’t usually see together. We tend to think of fruits as sweet and bread as savory. Why the strange name, then?
Simple. It’s all in the taste. When you cook it, Ulu has a texture and aroma similar to fresh bread, as well as a flavor similar to potatoes or other starchy vegetables.
When you look into its history, though, it turns out that the “bread” description has even deeper meaning.
There’s an old saying that “bread is the staff of life,” but it appears that for much of early history in the Pacific region, Ulu was the staff of life.
Ulu originates in northwest New Guinea. About 3,500 years ago, ancestors of the Polynesians discovered the crop there and began to cultivate it in place of rice.
As they spread throughout the Pacific islands, they brought breadfruit with them. Its connection to these ancient Polynesians is so strong that scientists have even used it to help understand the history of migration to the Pacific islands.
Pretty cool, right?
A Mythical History
In addition to its connection to human migration, Ulu also has a place in Hawaiian legends.
The legend goes that Ulu was created when the god Kū sacrificed himself to save his earthly human family from starvation.
He descended into the ground until only the top of his head was visible, and his family spent many a day and night watering the spot with their tears.
Eventually, a small plant appeared that grew into an Ulu tree. Because of his sacrifice, his family and their village were saved from starvation.
The connection between Ulu and sustenance runs deep.
Whether or not you believe the myths, Ulu are remarkable trees. They can grow up to 82 feet tall and have large, lush green leaves. Their scientific name is Artocarpus altilis, which comes from three Latin words meaning “bread,” “fruit,” and “fat.”
Most trees yield fruit just once a year, so it’s important to get them while you can! When they do fruit, however, they do so abundantly. A mature tree can yield up to 200 grapefruit-sized fruits per season!
If you’re looking to grow your own Ulu, it’s a similar procedure to growing other trees such as palms.
Ulu prefer nutrient rich soil high in organic material. Compost tea and mulching help as well.
Make sure that your Ulu receive plenty of water, especially for the first couple years when they’re still getting established. Drying out is one of the most common causes of death among young Ulu plants, so be sure to stay vigilant.
Other care considerations include pruning the tree at least once a year and making sure mature plants get plenty of sunlight (this helps prevent fungal diseases).
Once you’ve planted it in the ground, your Ulu should begin bearing fruit in about 2-3 years, though it can take 5-6 years to reach maximum fruiting potential.
Although Ulu has a long history as an edible plant and continues to be part of many delicious dishes (see below), people across the world have also used it for more than just eating.
The wood of the Ulu tree is light, sturdy, and resistant to termites. This has made it a popular material for building ships, houses, and canoes in tropical regions.
Additionally, Ulu produces a milky latex juice, which has historically been used as both a glue and a caulk.
Finally, Ulu has a place in traditional medicine, where it was used to treat everything from sore eyes to sciatica.
Such a versatile plant!
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: Ulu recipes!
Because it exists all throughout tropical regions, the recipes for Ulu are as diverse as the cultures that cultivate it. This made it really hard to choose just a few recipes, but you’ll find some of our favorites below. Just know that this is only scratching the surface.
It turns out that the traditional Hawaiian food poi can also be made with Ulu. You can either substitute Ulu for the taro root, or add it to the regular dish.
Here’s a fun video in which ‘Anakala Isaiah Kealoha shows you how to make Ulu poi:
Rellenos de Pana
In Puerto Rico, the word for breadfruit is “pana” (from the Spanish word for bread, pan). Rellenos de pana is essentially stuffed breadfruit (relleno is the Spanish word for “filling” or “stuffing”). Traditionally, the stuffing is a meat such as beef, but you could also create a vegetarian version if you wanted.
Here’s an excellent rellenos de pana recipe from Cookpad.com.
And just for fun, here’s a video of Chef Edgardo Noel making rellenos de pana. The video is in Spanish, but it’s visual enough to understand the important parts regardless of the language you speak.
This decadent recipe comes courtesy of Smithsonian, who did a cool feature on Cooking With Breadfruit. This isn’t too different from making a regular cake, but the addition of Ulu makes it something in a category all its own.
Who knew Ulu had such a fascinating cultural and culinary history? It just might be the most versatile plant we’ve covered on this blog. We hope this post has inspired you to learn more about Ulu, and maybe to try it out in your own kitchen or garden.
If you you’d like to know more about Ulu, please contact us or stop by the nursery to chat with one of our staff.
What questions do you have about Ulu? Have a favorite recipe you’d like to share? We’d love to hear all about it in the comments sections below!