The breadfruit is a remarkable food: The prickly football-size pod is full of nutrients and energy. Growing on one of the earth’s highest-yielding trees, it could even help alleviate world hunger, backers believe.
There’s just one problem: It tastes remarkably bland.
Julia Flynn Siler’s article on breadfruit, or more specifically on the Inaugural Breadfruit Festival on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the Wall Street Journal provoked a torrent of comments, most of them outraged at her dismissal of this foodstuff. Worth skimming through them.
On the same day, Julia Flynn Siler published a much more sympathetic account of the festival in her blog. And besides being the author of the forthcoming Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, she has written several nice blog posts on food in Hawaii, including one on kava. My goodness, I never managed to track down kava when I was there, but then the islands are changing fast.
So who knows what happened with the WSJ article. It came across as a series of cheap shots. Such a missed opportunity to offer readers a way in to an important food that is mainly associated with a mythic Pacific bounty.
A point worth making, though, is that Hawaii is not really the place to look for delicious breadfruit recipes. Sure, the original settlers brought the tree with them. It grows all over the islands. The Wikipedia picture turns out to be of one of my favorites, the one in Foster Botanic Gardens, where I idled away many happy hours when I lived in Hawaii.
And sure, you can buy slices in Farmer’s Markets and in Chinatown. But in ten years in Hawaii I never saw it on a menu, nor was I ever offered it by anyone. In Wanda Adams’ two volume collection of 150 years´worth of recipes from the Honolulu Advertiser, The Island Plate, there is not a single recipe for breadfruit.
The Hawaiians, unlike say the Marquesans, did not make much use of breadfruit. They preferred their poi made of taro and if that failed or in dry areas, of sweet potato.
Nor did any of the subsequent immigrants change this. Their favorite staple was rice. Hawaii has been a rice-eating society for a hundred years, though the recent influx of mainland immigrants may be changing that.
Three cheers that there are initiatives to promote breadfruit in Hawaii. Three cheers that cooks in Hawaii are trying to find new ways of preparing it. This, however, means a high failure to success ratio.
Very few plants are intrinsically delicious. They take breeding, processing, and cooking to become delicious. If you want established delicious breadfruit dishes, then go to the South Pacific, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia or South India where cooks have been long been serious about breadfruit.
Here’s Rosa Maria Gonzalez Lamas (in Spanish) on breadfruit (pana) in Puerto Rico.
¿Te gustan los tostones de pana? ¿El flan de pana? ¿La pana con aguacate y serenata de bacalao? ¿El mofongo de pana? ¿Los chips de pana? ¿La pana en escabeche?
Here’s a recipe from Kerala in India from Ammini Ramachandran’s Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts.
2 firm green breadfruit
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 to 15 fresh curry leaves
Peel the thick green skin and cut the breadfruit in half. Cut the segments into half-inch cubes. Place the cubes in a heavy saucepan, pour in enough water to cover, and stir in the turmeric and salt. Cook over medium heat until the vegetable is tender and all the water has evaporated. Stir periodically so that they breadfruit does not stick to the saucepan. Heat the oil in a heavy, large skillet, and fry the curry leaves. Transfer the cooked vegetables to the skillet, and pan-fry over low heat for twelve to fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve warm with rice and curries.