As long as your flour is gluten-free, it must be healthy, right? Not exactly, says Hōkūao Pellegrino, a Maui farmer whose love of cooking—and his wife’s autoimmune disease—got him researching different ways of making gluten-free flour. Popular alternatives like rice and tapioca flour have little nutritional value, and knowing there had to be better options, Pellegrino did what any of us would: He Googled it.
His internet sleuthing led him to Jamaica, where he found that people were making flour that’s not only packed with nutrients and fiber and can help with lowering cholesterol, but that the fruit to make it was already growing on his two-acre Noho‘ana Farm in Waikapū. ‘Ulu, or breadfruit, is a “canoe crop” brought to the Islands by Polynesian voyagers and was a staple for early Hawaiians. It remains an important food throughout much of the Pacific, but over the past century or so, it has become comparatively rare in the diets of people in Hawai‘i.
Pellegrino doesn’t know whether Hawaiians ever used ‘ulu for flour. The milling process is time-intensive, and from a business point of view, ‘ulu flour doesn’t make sense. Nevertheless, with the help of a mill he purchased from Austria, Pellegrino can now process fifteen grades of flour for fine-tuning recipes. “My father is Italian,” he says, “and he does everything from scratch from my grandmother’s recipes. Before I went to Italy I thought flour was flour, but there’s flour for pizza, flour for bread—now we make gnocchi, pancakes, banana bread, and all the flour is ‘ulu.”
Most important, the flour tastes great and has much more flavor than you’d find with regular wheat or gluten flour. This comes at a time when ‘ulu is making a culinary comeback in the Islands, and traditional food crops are finding new use in modern, more current cuisine. To help further the innovation, Pellegrino occasionally holds workshops on how to cook with ‘ulu.
Still, despite it being a traditional crop that once flourished here in Hawai‘i, ‘ulu’s current popularity isn’t yet on par with places like Jamaica, where Pellegrino says “they have magazines about ‘ulu—it’s at a totally other level.” That said, “there’s a lot of room to grow,” says Pellegrino, “and because this type of flour isn’t available in Hawai‘i, it’s worth the time to do it.”