Breadfruit. All but Inedible?

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.

Breadfruit Tree in Foster Botanic Gardens, Honolulu, 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.

 

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18 thoughts on “Breadfruit. All but Inedible?

  1. Karen Jardim

    You’re right, Rachel, about the Caribbean. I’m with Rosa Maria Gonzalez Lamas. There are so many ways to cook the subtle but distinct breadfruit. In the English speaking Caribbean, we ate salty breadfruit chips by the handfuls as kids. Whole roasted breadfruit with just a pat of butter and a sprinkling of salt is comfort food, par excellence. And breadfruit always contributed to family get togethers because of its generous size.

    Reply
  2. Michelle Toratani

    Growing up in Hawaii, I think I ate breadfruit a few times in my life and that’s only because I was friends with Samoans. Otherwise, I too have never seen it offered in restaurants nor seen it sold anywhere. The way I was offered breadfruit was sort of steamed/baked in foil like a baked potato. I liked it, it was bland and starchy but for me, it wasn’t that different to potatoes. I do remember in the 4th grade, our school had a luau and one of the things they served was breadfruit. It is a meal that I still remember to this day and I wonder which teacher suggested to include it that day.

    Funny you should write about breadfruit this week because just the other day, I was watching Peter Kuruvita, Sri Lankan Aussie chef prepare his breadfruit curry dish. I swear, I’d never seen breadfruit look so appetizing in my life and it makes me want to run back to Hawaii to try the recipe out!

    http://www.sbs.com.au/shows/mysrilanka/recipes/detail/recipe/13373

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hello Michelle, thanks for the comment. I’m so pleased to have you confirm my claim that Hawaii was just not a breadfruit-eating place. Hope you get to experiment with breadfruit some time.

      Reply
  3. Cynthia Bertelsen

    In Haiti, we ate the most exquisite breadfruit fritters at a hotel in Jacmel. Feather-light. Would have died and gone to heaven to have the recipe they used, but I think the concept followed along the lines of beignets.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Let me pass this on to Greg Patent. He is about to start on a breadfruit recipe campaign. Thanks so much.

      Reply
  4. Robyn Eckhardt

    Here in Malaysia (and Indonesia, I suspect) it’s dipped in batter and deep-fried and it’s delicious! Then again there’s not much that’s dipped in batter and deep-fried that’s not delicious. But — there is also a little noodle shop here in Penang that makes the most exquisite breadfruit cakes. Absolutely addictive.
    Down with breadfruit haters.

    Reply
  5. Oscar Jaitt

    There are very many breadfruit trees in Hawaii, so somebody is eating those fruits. It’s true that most restaurants don’t serve it, so you have to either go to a luau or somebody’s house or make your own to eat it. You can often see ulu (breadfruit) for sale at the farmer’s markets. It’s also not true that the Hawaiians did not favor breadfruit. If you look at historical records there was an area planted near Kealekakua that was about 18 miles long by about 2 miles wide. So they grew plenty of breadfruit, many thousands of tons. While taro was more important as a staple, there was plenty of ulu also.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Oscar. Let me begin by saying that I just love your web site. I wish I were still in Hawaii so that I could come and visit your nursery.

      I am not sure that just because there are lots of breadfruit trees that someone is eating the fruit. Think of all the kukui nut trees whose nuts simply go to waste. I know they are not the easiest nuts to deal with but they are still used in Indonesia. It just seems not to be worth the trouble in Hawaii as macadamias have displaced them.

      I agree with you that the ancient Hawaiians must have eaten breadfruit. At the very least it would have been a reserve for poi. I don’t think though that in the last century they have eaten much breadfruit. And they certainly don’t have in any available form the kind of recipes that will make contemporary diners see this as a valuable crop.

      Thanks for commenting and hope to see you on the blog again soon.

      Reply
  6. Nick Trachet

    We had a tree in our garden when I was living in Suva (Fiji). I Liked the fruit. We prepared it whole in the oven where it took a rather chestnutty taste.
    There are some inconveniences, though:
    1: the size. You need a large family to serve a breadfruit
    2: an erratic ripening pattern. You never knew when a fruit would be ripe and it then happened very fast: a friend from Suriname described it as: “green-green-green-green-green-green-ripe-rotten”
    3: bad keeping quality. They keep for three days max. Chilling will spoil them quick. Hence it use as fermented poi (laplap)?

    In the two years we stayed in the house, we were able to eat them but a couple of times. They were mostly stolen by the children of our squatter neighbours from Futuna. I never saw poi in Fiji. Maybe in the outer Islands such as the Lau group? A French traveler, visiting Toamotou described it as “vegetable camembert”

    Susan Parkinson from Fiji
    http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=125798
    wrote about the fruit in a few of her publications.

    Never knew it could be used green?

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for those comments Nick. I had no idea you had lived in Fiji. I agree about the size problems. In Hawaii, it was usually sold in slices in the markets. And the erratic ripening.

      Funnily enough I had come across Susan Parkinson as I am in the middle of reviewing Me’a Kai, the prize-winning book on Pacific foods, for the Art of Eating.

      Reply
  7. Claudia A

    While we were in Brazil, we had it for breakfast. I think it was just boiled or roasted, then served with butter and sugar. Not unlike a porridge, I guess. It was tasty!

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Claudia. Never encountered that in Brazil but then I was not up in the tropical part like you. Thanks for posting.

      Reply
  8. Cooking in Mexico

    Around our part of Mexico — the west coast near Puerto Vallarta — breadfruit trees are used in landscaping. We have a magnificent specimen in our yard, and it is like all the others here — full of large seeds. The seeds are so numerous, there is not enough flesh to enjoy, but the seeds are edible.

    I spent the better part of an hour peeling the seeds, boiling them, peeling them again (there seems to be dark skin under the peel). I used the pureed, cooked seeds, instead of garbanzo beans, to make hummus. Very good, and definitely a conversation starter at the potluck dinner.

    Kathleen

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Kathleen. Your idea I take it? Ingenious. I will have to try this when I next have a handy breadfruit tree.

      Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hello Franka,

      Thanks so much for getting in touch. I am planning to put up breadfruit recipes this weekend and so I’m delighted to have this one. And I love your blog and have put it on my RSS feeder.

      Looking forward to reading more.

      Reply

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