Ooh — what is that strange-looking thing? (It looks alien.) Is it a vegetable or a fruit? What do you do with it?
These are some questions we residents of Kauai get used to answering about the noni (Indian mulberry) and ulu (breadfruit) growing along roadways and in fields and gardens on our island. We may have also been asked about the “tourist pineapple,” the product of the female hala (pandanus) tree. But that one is better-looking, especially now, when the candy-corn shaped segments are ripening — so my focus is upon the exonerating features of the “uglies” today.
Noni, botanical name Morinda citrifolia, is a small tree or shrub with glossy green leaves that produces starry white blossoms that become the pale green, thin-skinned fruits. Noni was known in old Hawaii for its healing qualities. Today, noni juice is produced on a large scale, bottled and sold as a health food tonic throughout the world.
My husband and I learned while traveling in the Cook Islands that the islanders there had returned to the practice of growing groves of noni, an original fruit of Polynesians throughout the Pacific. They successfully harvest and sell their product to commercial processors.
In a past column, I suggested our following suit, growing groves of what grows well and naturally here, such as noni, as an alternative to the threatening idea of a Mahaulepu dairy that will take much but give nothing back to the island. In fact, to allow a dairy to operate on those lands was shown to be damaging in many ways (not to mention no product forthcoming to benefit Kauai people).
The noni fruit ripens through several stages, eventually becoming a soft, white mass. The seeds dotting their skin turn purple in color. True, at this stage it does not have a pleasant fragrance, but this is when old-time Kauaians bottle and ferment the fruit for the cleansing effect of its tonic. We’ve noticed the feathers of our free-ranging fowl that eat the falls have never looked glossier.
If you have noni fruit available, here’s my tested tip (not just for the ladies) about one way of using No. 1 of my “uglies”: For a facial astringent, harvest a firm noni that feels like a ripe tomato and is the color of cucumber flesh. Wash it and cut slices to use as a facial cleanser before rinsing and drying your face. This ugly might be said to make you more beautiful or handsome. The used slices enrich your compost. The remainder may be bagged and refrigerated several days for further use.
Now to ugly No. 2, the ulu. Did you know that Capt. Bly (“Mutiny on the Bounty”) was transporting multiple starts of young trees onboard? He’d learned that the Polynesian tales of how there’s no hunger where ulu trees grow were not myth but fact.
With hurricane season and renewed threats of damaging winds, I’m not sure how our next ulu harvest will complete. Meanwhile, it’s wonderful to use ulu from last year’s harvest that were steamed, peeled and frozen for later preparation. We enjoy eating this viable, healthy starch in just about any way you put potatoes to use.
This particular ugly transforms into a beautiful food. It will keep in your refrigerator in it’s plain, steamed form for up to a week, available for varied uses from lightly olive-oiled chips and hash-browns, in soups and stews, mashed with garlic and butter, curried with coconut milk, or transformed into a “potato” salad or cooling vichyssoise.
Some of our tree’s fruits have been too large to fit into a rice cooker, an easy steaming method, and must go, skin and all, into a large pressure cooker until fork tender. Spray the inside of the pans lightly with canola or olive oil before adding the water that will be brought to the boil to aid in cleaning later. Also oil the knife if cutting back the gluey stalk.
For the rice cooker, add water to about one-third of the pan before the ulu is placed within. For a pressure cooker, about 4 cups of water for a 20-minute, high-pressure steaming. You don’t want the pan to burn dry.
After the process finishes and the steamer and ulu cool down, carefully remove and process it: cut into quarters, remove the center pith, peel off the skin and cut the edible portions into chunks, wedges or “chips,” depending on the use you’re planning.
If you’re new to Hawaii (or still unacquainted) and haven’t yet seen a noni tree, there’s a small one “my” Elderhostel and Road Scholar travelers liked seeing and learning about in the Wailua area that grows toward the royal birthing area of Ka Lae O Na Manu located on Kuamoo Road.
Across the way, there’s a mini-arboretum where grows an ulu tree copiously hung with immature fruit right now. In fact, the abundance of bumpy, pale green globes caught my eye this past week and spurred this column.
Also, dear readers, don’t forget the availability and offerings of our National Tropical Botanical Garden. (As for the ripening hala, we’ve just walked through a profusion of gold falling to the earth in a grove that grows near the Wailua River mouth on the Lydgate Beach Park side.)
Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author and poet, made her home on Kauai in the 1980s. She and her husband, a retired biology teacher, live with books, music and birds in Wailua Homesteads. Shared passions are travel and nature. The writer’s books may be found in local outlets and on Amazon. For further information, firstname.lastname@example.org.