A healing, satisfying, ugly duo – noni and ulu

  • Photo by Dawn F. Kawahara

    A nourishing and tasty ulu “potato” and egg salad the columnist concocted for a dinner party.

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, tropicbirdpress@gmail.com.

  1. Charlie Chimknee August 27, 2018 8:36 am Reply

    Aloha Kakou, Aloha Dawn,

    Mahalo for such an informative and Ono Noni and Ulu article.

    Our neighbor has an ulu tree, it seems more like an Aircraft Carrier, or maybe a B-52 towards the end of ripening season, seems a helmet is required within walking distance.

    Some of us were confused when you were talking about Mahaulepu, you see we thought you were talking about the West side’s seed companies’ providing nothing for the island but a few jobs, but also leaving behind them the silent but deadly cancerous pollutions in the waters, air, land, schools, and neighborhoods.

    Letting corporate $$$ “gone wild” with the freedom to spread poison is like being Star Struck with the wealth of these corporations allowing them to carry on with business as usual, doing whatever they want to do for profits they take away with them, leaving us nothing behind of any value except the costs of disease care on those stricken with the cancers, and the pollution residuals that just won’t go away.

    And all this in the face of Monsanto who has just lost a lawsuit of a few hundred millions of dollars for their cancer causing product and invention copyrighted and patented, Glyphosate,, and who conveniently and quickly sold out to Bayer petrochemical company of Europe, and who did the “hat trick” over night of passing on their responsibilities and liabilities to the unknown Hartung Brothers, who must have done their parents proud taking over for Monsanto, spreading poison on Kauai. Hey but it’s only the Westside the say, unless you live or work there.

    So we go from Noni and Ulu, medicinal on the one hand, and life sustaining on the other, as a possible future agricultural source of jobs and life itself; to mutated seeds, lacking the God Fearing necessity of life sustaining enterprise, by genetic mutilation of God’s given sources of food for corporate profit instead of food, yet also leaving the 3 Suicides of Insecticide, Herbicide, and Pesticide left around for all of God’s creatures, including the humans, in the vicinity (Kaua’i) to suffer from and live a shortened life.

    How shortsighted are those in authority who tolerate such devastation to people and the environment. The “Worshippers of Profit at any Expense” need to respect and not interrupt God and Nature’s relentless pursuit of the perpetuation of life, spreading the oil made chemicals who’s intent is only to kill live things.

    And just like the potential profit for the cows if at Mahaulepu, there’s a price to pay for that, but not paid for by their profits, but by the people and the environment.

    Have you seen a keiki ulu tree come out from the roots of the parent tree 50+ feet away. From keiki, to adolescent, to teenager, they are what makes a parent tree proud, not to mention the sprouted spacing necessary for a new family of ulu.



  2. harry oyama August 28, 2018 3:45 am Reply

    Eating too much ulu will make you fat.

  3. kauairosina August 28, 2018 8:53 am Reply

    Mahalos Dawn for your article. We have several ulu trees and in addition to learning how to use the ulu for ourselves we have been able to sell ulu to several vendors on the island who make unique edibles with it.

    One question for all who write ulu recipes. Why peel the ulu? We don’t peel potatoes any longer and we find that the ulu peel is quite easy to savor also.

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