Please won’t you be my neighbor? Meet ‘ulu

From the eatbreadfruit.com site, “E hālāwai pu me ka ‘ulu,” in other words, meet ‘ulu, or breadfruit. One of our adjacent neighbors is the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative, at the former location of the Food Basket Warehouse. We see a bit of their buildings peeking through the gigantic weed trees on the border (on their side), the African tulips and autograph plants. We occasionally hear the machinery running.

I really like what they’re doing. From their website, “The co-op is committed to the revival of ‘ulu to strengthen Hawai‘i’s food security and to the value of aloha ‘āina (love for the land) ….” According to the foodsecurityhawaii.org website, Hawaii imports 85% of its food. There was an article about the ‘ulu coop a few weeks ago in West Hawaii Today, “Hawaii Ulu Cooperative wants to see breadfruit on your plate.” Here’s an earlier article about the fruit itself.

It was quite some years ago that we got turned on to breadfruit. My aunty grew them, and even they didn’t really eat them earlier, but she told us how she discovered to really like them. She let them ripen until they were pretty soft to touch, then sliced it in half and baked it at 350. They smell so delicious, like a baking cake. It has a beautiful yellow color, a soft, starchy texture, and a slight pineapple, sweet potato taste. I love them served together with baked ube (purple sweet potato). I don’t add a thing (no butter, salt or spices required). But there are many other ways to enjoy them. For one, I made an ‘ulu chowder with hard ‘ulu, which you can use like a potato. Hubby says he wouldn’t, however, be able to eat ‘ulu as frequently as the Norwegian boy could eat potatoes. I’ve also enjoyed ‘ulu hummus from the store and the ‘ulu wedges at Magics Beach Grill.

Breadfruit grows well where we are and better where there’s a bit more rain than we get. If you drive along the Mamalahoa Hwy or in South Kona, you’ll see many huge breadfruit trees (some pruned horribly, e.g., just lopped where they get close to power lines). ‘Ulu has beautiful leaves and gives anywhere they grow a jungly, tropical feel.

  • 'ulu nursery at the 'Ulu Coop.

If you get a chance, try them, and try a fresh one if you can. If you’re in Hawaii you might have better luck finding them at a farmers market than at the grocery store. And there are times when fresh fruit are harder to come by. Also, factor in time to ripen if you can only find a hard one, or count on trying a recipe that works with firm ‘ulu.

Today I’ll leave you with a few images of Kona snow. These are the trees that were stumped a year ago. They’re ready to go now!

Bunches of green bananas.

Time for a break from coffee. Going bananas!

Do you know how to “pick” bananas? See my husband in the bottom left of the photo? He’s the little, light blue thing that stands six feet tall.

Hint: no ladder or heavy equipment is required.

banana trunk

Most of us refer to bananas growing on trees or palms, but they aren’t trees or palms. They’re banana plants, a perennial herb with succulent, juicy stems that arise from a fleshy corm. New leaves push up from growing points on the corm below the ground. The banana “tree” is a pseudo-stem or trunk and is not woody. Notice the cut trunk in the photo. It consists of all the leaf stalks furled around each other, and the leaves emerge from the center. The flower also debuts from the middle and finally turns into a bunch of bananas.

Once the trunk produces fruit, it will never produce fruit again. So you harvest bananas by cutting the trunk, the “tree.” There are other pups or suckers that grow from other growing points on the corm near the main trunk. Those will grow to give you more bananas. To keep your grove manageable, it’s best to cut and remove the fruiting trunk. Our grove has productive and unproductive trunks. The old trunks are still useful as part of a living sound and sight barrier.

My husband has perfected his harvesting technique. The goal is to have the trunk slowly fall so the fruit won’t slam from its height down to the ground. He cuts as high as he can reach, and cuts about 2/3 through the trunk on the opposite side that he wants the trunk to fall. He watches what happens. He might then make a couple of more cuts lower down, so that the trunk bends or articulates at the cut locations. Don’t wear any clothes you care about when you do this job. Banana juice/sap stains dark brown.

This time the bananas to harvest were on a trunk inside the grove. My husband Rune is inside there, cutting as high as he can. There are a few spindly coffee trees in the foreground; bananas do dominate their space.

Once the trunk was cut, it was still propped up by trunks in front of it. This one had to be cut to let the desired trunk fall. Conveniently, it fell right on our huge compost pile of mostly felled banana trunks.
Hawaiian hawk ('io)
At this point, we were delighted when a Hawaiian hawk (‘io) flew on to our banana plants. We watched it until it flew away. When we later confirmed the type of bird, I learned that it was only removed from the endangered list in 2020! They are only found on the Big Island. (If we hadn’t brought the good camera down to document banana harvesting, we wouldn’t have been able to get such a good photo.)
After the bananas were harvested, he still had to clean out that felled trunk.

By the way, it happened to rain the whole time we were out with the bananas. It is hard work for the harvester, but most of that moisture on his t-shirt is rain not sweat.

Here’s the previous harvest on New Year’s Day. The photo shows two stalks of apple bananas, with the stalks partially divided. A definition of banana parts would be useful here: “A single banana is called a finger. A grouping of attached “fingers” make up a “hand” of bananas. Multiple hands that grow in a cluster are called a bunch or stalk—a bunch of bananas may contain 3 to 20 hands!” (from https://kids.sandiegozoo.org/stories/go-bananas)

What do we do with so many bananas? Mostly share! Most family & friends do their part and will usually accept a hand or two. Many eat them, and many make banana muffins or bread or dehydrate them. Still, we had two big hands that ripened pretty rapidly. This time we wanted to try making banana ketchup! It’s apparently a popular condiment in the Philippines.

We like it! It reminds us a bit of tamarillo (tree tomato) chutney more than tomato ketchup. We like tamarillo chutney with lamb chops. In any case, the next part of experimentation involves discovering what goes well with banana ketchup. We think probably pork, chicken, fish, burgers, and breakfast potatoes.

I’m on the Hunter Family’s fish list. On Friday afternoons, I receive a text stating what fish they caught and what I can order to pick up the next morning at the Keauhou Farmer’s Market. Yesterday I picked up ono and some bok choy. For dinner we had rice, bok choy, a few slices of leftover baked ube (purple sweet potato), and broiled ono (that was basted in shoyu, butter, salt & pepper). The ketchup was a nice condiment with the ono and the ube.

Here’s our ketchup recipe, adapted from Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Barbeque by Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe. We made it more Hawaiian and did some tweaks.

Banana Ketchup

2 Tbsp canola oil
1 tsp peanut butter
1 small sweet Maui onion
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 Tbsp chopped fresh ginger
1/2 tsp turmeric powder (next time we’ll try some fresh turmeric root)
1/2 tsp ground allspice
6 ripe apple bananas, mashed (we’ll note total weight next time, since bananas can vary a lot in size)
1/2 c white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp kiawe honey
2 Tbsp Koloa Kaua’i dark Hawaiian rum
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp kosher salt

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil.
Add the peanut butter, onion, garlic, jalapeño, and ginger.
Cook about 6 minutes until the onion is translucent.
Add turmeric and allspice; cook for 1 minute.
Add bananas and mix well.
Add remaining ingredients and bring to simmer.
Cover and cook 15 minutes, stirring often.
Remove from heat to cool.
When cool, blend in food processor or blender.
Serve at room temperature.
Store in airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

The Scary Act of Planting Trees for the Future

Planting coffee trees isn’t so daunting, but planting other trees is scary to me. We see plenty of examples of how coffee trees grow and how they can be pruned and managed. Ours are mostly around 80 years old or so. We are behind on planting new, young grafted coffee trees in the empty spaces we have. That has been an ongoing saga; I won’t go into that here.

avocado, lime, 'ulu (breadfruit), mgambo, native white hibiscus, and lemon cutting.

We have been motivated to do some new plantings, maybe it’s the Hawaiian version of mainlanders, spending more time at home, wanting to plant and grow things. It’s a healthy reaction to the pandemic I hear. Many things grow well here, perhaps too well, and that’s what I’m afraid of. We don’t want to plant the wrong things and create future problems for ourselves.

From L to R: avocado, lime, ‘ulu (breadfruit), mgambo (Hawaiian pussywillow), native white hibiscus, and a sad lemon cutting.

Large Song of India tree.

One example is the $5 Song of India 8-inch cutting we bought at a now-closed Kainaliu nursery. Bea admired it in a flower arrangement, so later we bought a cutting. That’s it on the left in the photo. That has even been cut several times. You can’t slack off on your pruning.

We’ve been enjoying our aunty’s Kahalu’u avocados for years. It’s not uncommon that you buy an avocado at the farmers market, ask what variety it is and get an answer like, “We’re not sure. We think it might be XYZ. The tree was already there when we bought the land.” People keep referring to the “over 200 varieties” of avos grown in Hawaii. See this poster by Ken Love, fruit freak, maven of tropical fruit. This article from Hana Hou magazine is one of a few about him that gives you a taste of how special and unusual Ken Love is.

Kahalu'u avocado tree.

Anyway, we want to grow our own Kahalu’u avocados. The hard part for me is planting something that’s now a toddler and imagining what it’ll grow up to be. How tall will it be? How wide will the umbrella be? When and how do we have to prune and guide it so we’ll be able to harvest and maintain it?

We have a lychee tree that even with our extension picker, we can only barely reach some of the very lowest fruit. The majority of the fruit just goes to waste because we can’t reach it. Bea used to climb the tree in her croc shoes (!) and prune branches with fruit. She was in her 70’s, and it would freak everyone out. Others have problems convincing their elderly parents not to drive. How do you get your mom to stop climbing trees if she wants to? She has been saying that she’s losing the arm strength/stamina to saw off branches, so maybe that will do it.

Two foot triangle palm.

This is a triangle palm “tree” that we bought at a garage sale. It’s now two feet tall and is hardly taller than our weeds. Have we planted it far enough away from our house? Supposedly they can reach heights of 25 to 35 feet with a crown spread of 15 feet. I’m just not good at imagining such things.