Home sweets home
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Hawaiian legend has it that the great god Kū, in a time of great famine, buried his head in the earth and turned his body into the trunk and limbs of the breadfruit plant, having told his distraught wife how to roast the fruit, remove the skin and feed herself and the children. They survived, and the villagers began to grow ‘ulu, the gift of Kū.
‘Ulu was carried across the Pacific on canoes by the original settlers of these islands. Considered a secondary staple to kalo (taro), the high-protein, nutrient-rich ‘ulu nonetheless was an important starch throughout pre-contact times, and also served as an emergency food in times of famine and disaster, as it could be buried underground for months or years.
The majestic ‘ulu tree grows to be between 40 and 60 feet tall, and its ruffled leaves are a common motif in Hawaiian art. The rough-skinned, globe-shaped fruit, measuring several inches and weighing 2–3 pounds, can be boiled, steamed, baked, fire-roasted or fried. Its wood, sap and flowers were also used in traditional Hawai‘i.
Despite its versatility, the ‘ulu has fallen from its place in the pantheon of native foods in the last 100 years, as Hawai‘i’s consumption of imported foods from the American continents has risen to over 80 percent. John Cadman has set out to change that.
Summit visited Cadman in his modest, industrial kitchen in Kahului, Maui, to learn more about his Pono Pies, which use locally sourced ‘ulu as their principal ingredient. These no-bake pies are gluten-, GMO- and soy-free, have no refined sugar and feature raw nuts and honey. His most popular pie flavors include lilikoi (made from local passion fruit) and dairy-free chocolate (made from raw cacao powder).
Two years ago, after researching ‘ulu as a member of the Maui Farmers Union, he started experimenting with ways to incorporate it into healthier desserts. The latter were part of a personal journey of wellness that had begun with a raw food diet, recognizing his own addiction to refined sugar and its negative impacts on his health. “If you asked for a dessert that was gluten-free, with no eggs and dairy, they’d hand you an apple,” says Cadman of the struggle to find healthier desserts. Then he discovered ‘ulu.
“The light bulb really went on,” says Cadman of the talk he gave to the Farmers Union. “I saw that ‘ulu could hold the key to sustainability and our many food security issues. It’s an amazing and underutilized crop.”
Pono is a Hawaiian word meaning good, virtuous and morally correct—and, in using local ingredients and supporting a market for commercial ‘ulu cultivation, Cadman seeks to bring a little righteousness back to our over-processed, industrial food landscape.
Cadman’s culinary experiments were far from random puttering in a home kitchen. Originally from California and Oregon, he has made Maui his home for over three decades and currently lives with his family in Ha‘ikū. His food and hospitality background includes stints as a sous chef at high-end resorts—he opened the Grand Wailea in 1990—and then 15 years with the School Food Services Branch of the state Department of Education. After two years as manager for Kamehameha Schools' Maui campus, he recently retired—only to find himself drawn back into the food community with his new venture.
The craft of making Pono Pies, and the newest addition to the lineup, Maui ‘Ulu Hummus, is a meticulous process that Cadman honed through four years of experimentation. The ‘ulu is supplied by an unusual source 40 miles away on the famously twisting Hāna Highway. The nonprofit Kahanu Gardens there has the world’s largest collection of breadfruit trees, possessing 120 varieties from across Oceania in total.
Kahanu Garden’s trees provide Cadman with 150 pounds of ‘ulu per week. Cadman has the ‘ulu delivered in a ripened state. He immediately peels, quarters, steams and freezes the fruit to preserve it as a base for his recipes. “They’re different varieties, but they all seem to work in the pies,” he says.
A veteran surfer who sold a vintage surfboard and rare Endless Summer posters to finance the start of Pono Pies, Cadman wakes at 4 a.m. to make about 20 pies, then hits the waves while they set. The steamed ‘ulu is first blended with natural flavorings and honey, poured on a crust of dates, crushed nuts and coconut and then allowed to firm before being sliced and packaged. His son Maika‘i and employee Shawn help him with these tasks.
On our visit, he offered us a taste of Kabocha Pono Pie, made from ‘ulu and a local variety of butternut squash. The texture was surprisingly creamy and lightly whipped—similar to a mousse, it was smooth and didn’t have the fibrous starchiness recalled from previous experiences eating plain, baked ‘ulu. The crust was a light and slightly chewy textural counterpoint to the smooth filling. The overall result was delicious, with not a whiff of conscripted “healthiness” anywhere.
The ‘Ulu Hummus was also remarkably similar to its namesake; with its turmeric-based coloring, it resembled the chickpea staple and possessed a similar consistency that went well with pita chips. Cadman’s seasoning deftly blends garlic and a hint of smokiness with local macadamia nuts, doing duty in the place of sesame tahini. About 50 percent of the pies’ ingredients are local; this number goes up to 90 percent for Pono Hummus.
While expanding the use and cultivation of taro products has been the focus of much of the recent cultural and native agriculture movement in Hawai‘i, Cadman sees some key advantages to growing ‘ulu as a food crop.
“It’s a great deal easier to grow than kalo,” says Cadman. “You use less water and, once the tree is established—which takes about three years—it’s a perpetual harvest. No replanting needed.” Cadman also extols the breadfruit’s resistance to drought and pests.
Cadman is also conscious of the larger issues of food security and healthier eating. Pono Pies is part of his long-term commitment to improving health and environmental sustainability through diet, which began over 10 years ago when he and other chefs in the Department of Education experimented with meat-free school lunches. He still sees a need for vegetarian and vegan options and the ability to cut the red tape that prohibits the use of produce grown in school gardens, and has lectured on these topics to diverse audiences.
“Ulu also means to grow,” notes Cadman. “To the Hawaiians, it symbolized abundance and the continuity of generations.” He’s at the vanguard of those who are bringing back the use of ‘ulu as a staple in our daily diet. Far from looking to distant shores for imports, Cadman is taking a small, but measurable, step in drawing upon the local sustenance that is symbolized by the ‘ulu—“the breadfruit that is in front of you, that is yours.”
Pono Pies are available at Whole Foods stores statewide, Mana Foods and Down to Earth on Maui, as well as several Maui restaurants.