The 'ulu smackdown
Story by Julia Steele
Photo by Jack Wolford
Hana is famed for its peace, its fecundity and its road. What’s it’s not so well known for—yet—is its breadfruit garden, a remarkable collection of 270 trees representing 120 varieties culled from dozens of islands throughout the Pacific. Stroll through the garden and you’re walking across water and time, traveling to landfalls where these trees first emerged: Pohnpei, Palau, Tahiti, Chuuk and beyond. The garden produces a fantastic assortment of breadfruits: big, little; round, oval; spiky, smooth—and that’s just on the outside. The range in taste and texture and flesh and flavor is even more amazing. And that is why I’m here.
It’s Aloha Week and I’m at the Hana Ball Park, one of five standing with pens in hand, clipboards at the ready, preparing to judge the 2009 annual Kahanu Garden ‘Ulu Cook-Off (‘ulu is Hawaiian for breadfruit). A feast awaits: Forty-four anonymous entries in categories ranging from “soup and salad” to “dessert.” I haven’t eaten all day in anticipation, yet my imagination has scarcely prepared me for the creativity I’m seeing. The tables are laden with entries like ‘ulu ‘opihi bisque, ‘ulu ‘o‘io fishcake, kim chee fried ‘ulu, ‘ulu dream bars and ‘ulu lumpia. There’s even a pineapple studded with little chunks of ‘ulu on toothpicks, to be dipped in melted chocolate.
Kamaui Aiona, the affable, accomplished director of Kahanu Garden, gives us directions. We are to judge five different elements: taste, appearance, originality, difficulty of preparation and—very important—adequate use of ‘ulu. In other words, you can’t just sprinkle a smidgen of toasted ‘ulu on top of your brownies and call them ‘ulu brownies (as one entry did). Most competitors, though, have taken the challenge seriously, crafting scrumptious and innovative dishes out of a one-time staple that has become a rarity. Breadfruit used to be a dominant part of the diet all over the Pacific; on the ocean’s most isolated and traditional islands, it still is. But elsewhere, as shifts in food have mirrored shifts in culture, it’s been forgotten.
You wouldn’t know it today. “Pace yourselves,” is the last piece of advice Kamaui gives us before we begin tasting—and it’s good advice. Breadfruit is a starch, gentle and subtle in its flavors and so easy to eat that just how full you’re getting can creep up on you. The fruit’s neutrality fosters its versatility. In the bisque it creates a generous solid base. In the salads it’s a fleshy, smooth counterpart to crisp vegetables. In the stews it’s the toothsome bulk. In the desserts it provides the creamy foundation. We move from dish to dish, sampling, savoring and scoring, trying—and failing—not to get breadfruit all over our clipboards. Because I don’t eat meat, I’ve recused myself from judging certain categories (and I’ve even anonymously entered one of those categories, “main dish”). Even giving the meat dishes a miss, I try more than thirty entries, including all fifteen desserts. Each of us has our favorites, but a few clear winners emerge, and the bisque—unofficially—is agreed the masterpiece of the year’s competition. After we finish judging, we hand our forms to Kamaui for tabulation. Huge quantities of food remain, and the tables are opened to an eager public, with everyone welcome to try three dishes for $5.
“Every year the entries are pushing it,” Kamaui says, gazing over the tables as the grazing commences. “It gets more and more competitive and better and better.” He—and everyone connected with Kahanu Garden—loves to see the bounty that has emerged around the cook-off. Thanks to some big scientific breakthroughs in the last few years, breadfruit trees have now become much easier to cultivate and transport than they used to be. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the world may be on the verge of a breadfruit revolution and—if the cook-off is any indicator—renaissance. If it happens, Kahanu Garden, home to the largest collection of breadfruit trees in the world, will be its epicenter.
The party at the ballpark continues: In the neighboring field there is music and hula as Kamaui and colleagues crunch numbers. At night’s end the winners are announced—and I’m amazed and happy that my entry, ‘Ula‘ino ‘Ono ‘Ulu Curry, has won first prize in its category. Why the curry’s name? ‘Ula‘ino is the road Kahanu Garden sits on. And ‘ono? That’s the Hawaiian word that best describes ‘ulu. It means delicious.
This year’s ‘ulu cook-off happens Oct. 23 in Hana.