Written by Amelia Marjory and Mary Grace Stich
This article is a slight detour from our usual sailing information, but it does share a lot of information about a superfood which we have encountered because of our life on a sailboat. I hope you enjoy this collaboration with Amelia.
Story by Amelia Marjory:
After three thousand or so nautical miles traversed since Mexico and countless meals cooked over the course, our propane tanks were running on fumes by the time we dropped the hook in Fakarava. So, we happily handed a tank over to the locally-run yacht service for a butane top-up. The estimated three hours of slow-drip gravity feeding stretched into a couple days of patiently waiting.
Eventually, the tank was finally full and ready to be hauled back to the boat. I had volunteered to wait out the final stretch at the yacht service office while Frank and Mary Grace took care of other projects aboard. Excited to raise anchor and high-tail south, I hoisted the aluminum container onto my head like a basket of fruit and began my journey back to the boat.
The afternoon was remarkably quiet. I only saw a few faces along my route, most of which were fury four-legged friends lounging in the shady roadside ditches. Shops were closed until dusk and restaurant services were on pause until dinner. Even the wind had retreated, leaving a tranquil lagoon in it’s transparent wake.
That quintessential South Pacific aqua marine came into sight as I rounded the corner. Soft wavelets lapped upon the coral-studded shore and French Polynesian nautical flags flapped on faraway shrouds. All the while an upbeat tempo thumped from potimaras (local fishing boats) on the prowl. Despite the water’s allure, my attention was drawn to a subtle rhythmic rustling to my right.
I slowed my stride and turned to look. Veiled by a hedge of hibiscus and tī, I spied the silhouette of two women dancing beneath a tree. Their feet floated upon the earth and their arms moved in graceful sweeping motions. Beneath them, a sea of giant leaves mirrored the thriving foliage overhead. And there, decorating the dense overhead canopy like Christmas tree ornaments, hung huge round fruits from outstretched limbs.
As my eyes adjusted to evaluate the landscape, rather than a seascape, I noticed the telltale sign of white sap dripping down the side of certain fruits. That, in tandem with their swelling skin, indicated a ripeness ready for harvest.
Giddy with excitement and slightly frothing at the mouth, I interrupted the afternoon symphony, exclaiming “Ia orana!,” (Tahitian for hello). One of the woman looked up and, without missing a beat, skipped over to greet me on the street.
We smiled at each other and exchanged a mélange of Tahitian, French, and English niceties. The smiles on our faces and sparkles in our eyes dissolved any linguistic barrier or inhibition in communication. So, feeling seen, safe, and accepted, I politely as possible inquired about her ulu.
“Tu uru… est peut être… possible a achete or échanger?”
She cocked her head and looked at me quizzically.
I pointed at the ulu tree and said “j’adore,” which was the only french phrase I knew indicating an admiration for something.
Her eyes then grew wide with understanding. She pointed at the propane tank, still positioned on top of my head, pointed at the ground, and held up both hands in a gesture to wait here.
Within a few minutes she returned with two plump breadfruit, dripping with white sap. I pulled a 1000 CFP bill (the equivalent of $10 USD) out of my pocket and offered it to her, which she refused with a smirk. I smirked back, placed my hands in prayer position, and met her generously open eyes. We nodded in unison, in unified understanding.
She insisted on helping me carry the bounty of fuel and food to the beach, where Frank was waiting with the dinghy, Day Tripper, to squire me back to the boat. Upon seeing us approach, his eyes grew as wide as mine had. “Ulu!” he exclaimed, paying no notice to the full bottle of propane that we had patiently awaited two whole days to fill…
Amelia was familiar with uru from her time in Hawaii, but Frank and I were first introduced to it a few months prior in the Marquesas. With comparably lush climates, the archipelagos of Hawaii and the Marquesas provided optimal growing conditions for uru. In the Tuamotus, however, plant life is much more sparse, so it was quite a treat to have Amelia bring some fresh local produce back to the boat.
Uru has a long history and tradition in the Polynesian heritage. Culturally, uru is considered one of the “canoe plants” that were transported between islands when settling new villages. There are many stories/folklore surrounding the uru plant.
Amelia spoke with Flora Hart, a Polynesian descendent of a 3rd generation voyaging family, who lives and works in Raiatea. In a combination of English, Tahitian and French, Flora shared with Amelia that the uru is “l’abre de la vie” – the tree of life.
Flora reported that the whole uru tree is useful:
~ the flower and fruit are eaten
~ the bark is used to make tapa (a type of cloth)
~ when dried, the fruit can be made into a flour
~ the leaves are used to cook “ahi ma’a” (food in the ground)
~ the sap is used for broken bones: apply the wet sap to the skin around the broken bone and when the sap dries it constricts and hardens to make a natural cast
~ the trunk is light and used to make canoes for fishing (Flora was emphatic that these were not racing canoes, only fishing canoes)
~ as food, the fruit is nutrient-rich and diverse— it can be eaten fresh or processed for long-term storage
~ when fresh, the fruit can be wrapped in leaves and placed in the ground for many months. When unwrapped, the uru will have the consistency of a puree and be very good to eat.
The legend of the uru is one we heard more than once in different places with similar but slightly different twists. While in Baie Hanavave on Fatu Hiva, the locals told the story of how important the uru was to the survival of the Marqueseans with this story:
When a child is in the womb, the placenta is its life source. When the child is born, the placenta is buried in the yard along with an uru tree. The idea is that the placenta will nourish the tree and the tree will insure the child always has food. Because the uru is strong and weather resistant, it will provide for the child and make certain he prospers, even in times of famine or draught.
The Hawaiian story we learned was much more detailed, perhaps because the account was told in English so nothing was lost in translation.
In Hawaii, when a child is born, the family placed the placenta of the child in the ground to connect it with the aina (the land). During gestation, the placenta was the organ that provided safety and nourishment for the child. However, after the child is born, the placenta is no longer needed because the child may receive nutrients directly from the earth. So, the Hawaiians would plant an ulu tree with the placenta: as “a prosperity-bearing replacement,” to honor the child’s journey through birth into human form, and so the child would always have nourishment.
As the tree grows and develops, so does the child. They grow in tandem.
The special “twist” of the Hawaiian ulu belief is that because the placenta is the initial nourishment of the tree, the DNA of the child is woven into the DNA of the tree. The tree is thereby able to provide fruit (food/medicine) and material (leaves/bark) that are specifically catered to and oriented to that child’s needs. The ulu “knows” the child’s genetic strengths and weaknesses— the child’s tendencies and propensities and will provide resources grown for that child. Because the tree is directly linked to the earth and the earth’s seasons and cycles, it serves as a bridge between the aina and the child. This way the child will always be taken care of and will always have a connection to the aina, to life source, to mana.
In Hawaii, ulu is the symbol of prosperity. In feast or famine, ulu provides. It is resilient. It is considered wise. Moreover, the ulu is perfectly-calibrated and evolutionarily adapted to thrive in the extensive expanse of Oceania.
In speaking with Emeline Wyome who lives in Raiatea, an island of the Society Group, Amelia learned this “Legend of Uru:”
When Raiatea was young, a large family lived here and there was a great famine. In all of the Societies there were no crops because the season was extremely dry. One year the famine was so difficult that the father of one family decided to plant himself (or maybe only his arm) into the land. From that place an uru tree grew and he was forever able to feed his family and all of the village. “So, the uru tree was born from the sacrifice of the father for his family.”
Ulu trees produce different amounts of fruit depending on the climate, but generally in French Polynesia each tree can produce 50-150 fruit annually. The fruit can vary in size from 1/2 to 13 pounds each. YES, 13 pounds!
The uru tree, considered vital to Polynesians and immersed in folklore, is nutritionally dense and can be eaten as either a sweet or savory dish. The following chart, taken from a Hawaiian.edu site, compares the benefits of breadfruit to white rice and potatoes.
According to an October 2022 article in HealthyMe, ulu has anti-cancer properties, helps improve digestion and improves bone health. In addition, breadfruit flour is gluten-free and has a low glycemic index. Therefore, it is an excellent option for people with diabetes.
The same article lists ulu as beneficial for:
Preventing and controlling diabetes
Improving brain function
Improving reproductive health
Helping weight management
Improving skin health
Regulating blood pressure
Improving bone health
When ripe for harvesting, this large green fruit with a bumpy skin, begins to drip a sticky, white sap on the outside skin. Breadfruit contains considerable amounts of starch and even after it is boiled or pressure cooked I find it has a very dense texture. Unripe ulu is seldom eaten raw, but it can be roasted, baked, boiled, fried, or dried to be ground into flour. Ripened ulu, on the other hand, is often enjoyed as-is, since it softens into a sweet, pudding-like treat. Ulu can be used in a sweet or savory manner, and we have even used it as a replacement for tofu in some recipes.
So with all of these benefits, perhaps you would like to cook an ulu recipe at home. At the end of this post are two of Amelia’s favorite uru recipes plus a “primitive approach” recipe. Please let us know if you try one and what you think of ulu. By the way, when preparing ulu, Frank and I cut it into small pieces otherwise uru feels too dense to us.
BONUS INFORMATION: Ulu aids in anthropological dating:
Though ulu are widely distributed throughout the Pacific, many breadfruit hybrids and cultivars are seedless or incapable of naturally dispersing long distances. Therefore, it is clear that humans aided distribution of the plant in the Pacific, specifically prehistoric groups who colonized the Pacific Islands. To investigate the patterns of human migration throughout the Pacific, scientists have used molecular dating of breadfruit hybrids and cultivars in concert with anthropological data. Results support the west-to-east migration hypothesis, in which the Lapita people are thought to have traveled from Melanesia to numerous Polynesian islands. (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breadfruit) I think it’s pretty awesome that the uru plant can help determine migratory patterns!
If you are lucky enough to live where breadfruit is available, here are some recipes to try. Or if you live in the US and are keen to try uru, you can order it online from Oja Express, Tropical Fruit Box or Fresh Direct. (I have never used these services.)
For a primitive approach to preparing ulu:
- Make a fire.
- Create a cozy bed of coals.
- Place entire ulu (whole, unpeeled) on bed of coals.
- Can cover ulu leaves to induce a smoking/steaming effect that encourages a thorough cooking.
- Rotate periodically so skin is evenly charred all the way around.
- Remove from fire, allow to cool, peel skin and voilá!
For a modern, savory ulu experience:
- Procure a ready-to-eat ulu (indications for readiness= hard, green, swollen skin with white sap dripping down the side.)
- Peel ulu using a sharp knife coated in oil (to mitigate the sappy stickiness). After peeling away the skin, cut out the pithy core.
- Cut ulu into desired size and shape, depending on your intended dish.
- Steam ulu for 10 minutes (or until tender enough for a knife to easily slice.) Steaming it first is ideal for a light, creamy texture and optimal nutrient digestion. Or in an InstantPot, pressure cook with 1/2-1″ of water on the bottom for 2-3 minutes with a quick release at the end.
- From here you can enjoy as-it-is OR bake, stir fry, bread and pan fry (for a yummy crispy, crunchy coating), mash into “mashed ulutatoes,” etc.
- Basically, treat ulu as a superhero starch. It can be substituted into any recipe calling for potato, yam, tofu, etc. Likewise, it can be enjoyed as the centerpiece of a meal. It is nutrient-dense, diverse, and absorbs flavors like a sponge, so feel free to spice-it-up!
For a sweet treat:
Ulu “Pünana” Thumbprint Cookies by Tropical Homestead
Makes about 2 dozen cookies:
- 1 1/2 cups ripe ulu, steamed – use breadfruit that is ripe: sweet and mushy
- 1 cup finely chopped raw, unsalted macadamia nuts
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1 tsp cardamon
- tart jelly/jam – liliko’i ginger jelly is especially ono (delicious)
- Macadamia nut oil for pan, optional
Preheat oven to 350°F
Mash steamed breadfruit using a crank processor, a potato masher or a brief pulse in a blender. The resulting paste should be sticky and clumpy, like buttermilk frosting.
Put the macadamia nuts, coconut, salt and cardamom in a mixing bowl and fold in the breadfruit paste, much like mixing butter into a batter until all the ingredients are well incorporated.
Either wipe a cookie sheet with macadamia oil or use a non-stick cookie sheet. Take about one tablespoons of breadfruit batter and roll into a ball. Form the dough into a nest with an impression on top for the jelly. Wet hands can help form the well-structured nest. Fill the sheet with the nests about 1 to 2 inches from each other. Then add about 1/2 a teaspoon of jelly to each nest. Liliko’i jelly is ono because of its bright, tart flavor, but any firm jam or jelly will work.
Put the cookie sheet into the oven and bake at 350° F for about 20 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly browned on the bottom and/or top. Remove and cool on a rack. Enjoy!
Enjoy! – Bon appétit! (French) Tama’a maitai! (Tahitian) Keu a ka ‘ono! (Hawaiian)
I recently read an article that stated ulu is considered a “superfood.” If it is a superfood, chances are very high that someone in California will feature it on the menu soon, so let us know if you see it offered. 😉
Thanks again for stopping by to read our blog. Perhaps this article will support a healthier you. Wishing you fun adventures and excellent health.
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