Breadfruit is an extremely versatile vegetable that can be boiled or grilled in potato-like dishes while still green, or turned into various desserts once it’s ripe. A variety of popular dishes are served in Caribbean countries as “traditional cuisine,” even though the plants were only introduced there in the late 18th century.
According to current scientific research, the Pacific islands were settled by people of the Lapita culture, who started out from the area of today’s Taiwan and wandered southwards where they discovered breadfruit trees in the area of Papua New Guinea and realized their value: Breadfruit trees are among the highest-yielding food plants, but are hardy and require little care. The trees’ light and sturdy timber is resistant to termites and shipworms and therefore ideal to build outrigger canoes and houses in the tropics. The ancestors of the Polynesians took saplings and root cuttings along in their outrigger canoes and so breadfruit reached the islands of the western Pacific (Fiji, Tonga) about 3000 years ago and eventually spread as far east as today’s French Polynesia by AD 1000.
That’s where Captain Cook stumbled over this starchy wonder during his Endeavour expedition to Tahiti in 1769. Most likely it was served during the feasts the friendly Tahitians held for their esteemed guests as a side dish, simply blackened in wood fire. Polynesians are masters of simple cuisine: preparation time 5 seconds, waiting time 30 minutes (throw the breadfruit into the fire, take it out, cut it up—et voilá).
Sir Joseph Banks who had accompanied Captain Cook on the expedition later on became President of the Royal Society and realizing the value of breadfruit as a cheap, high-energy food source for slaves, he organized another expedition to take breadfruit saplings to the Caribbean. In 1789 the unfortunate William Bligh arrived with HMS Bounty in Tahiti where his men and Tahitian helpers collected over 1000 saplings. Alas, we know the little plants never made it to their destination as Fletcher Christian’s mutiny got in the way of the project. The mutineers first got rid of Captain Bligh and his supporters and then of all the plants. They eventually settled on the uninhabited little rock of Pitcairn—ironically, breadfruit (taken there by previous Polynesian settlers) turned out to be one of their staple foods…
Incredibly enough Captain Bligh and his supporters survived an open-boat voyage of 3,600 nautical miles. Despite the previous disaster he was put in charge of a second expedition to collect breadfruit plants in Tahiti and this time he succeeded: he managed to take plants to St Helena in the Atlantic, and St. Vincent and Jamaica in the West Indies from where they eventually were spread all around the Caribbean and into tropical Central and South America.
HOW TO HARVEST A BREADFRUIT
You need friendly locals to give or sell you one, or a very long harvester (ideally one that looks like a basketball hoop with a closed net underneath), because breadfruit trees grow up to 20 m. Pick a fruit that already shows a pronounced honey-comb pattern in brown and plenty of white sap. Rip off the stem and let the sap ‘bleed out’—careful it’s so sticky it was used for ship’s caulking. Leave the fruit for 24 hours (when picked too green, breadfruit can cause digestion problems if used right away).
HOW TO COOK BREADFRUIT
For potato-like dishes breadfruit should be boiled while still hard. Judging the right degree of ripeness takes experience (and failed attempts) as they turn from rock-hard (“Let’s leave it a bit longer or it’ll cook forever!”) to overripe within half a day (“Damn, now we have mushy pudding…”).
Split the fruit into 8 wedges, peel them and cut out the spongy/seedy inner bit (putting the wedges into cold water prevents oxidation).
Steam until they are soft like boiled potatoes (15-40 min., depending on ripeness).
Cut the steamed breadfruit (about 1 wedge/person) into little cubes, mix with eggs (1/person), a tbsp of flour/person, grated hard cheese and some finely chopped onion and garlic. Form little burgers and fry them in a lightly oiled pan until golden brown. Serve with guacamole, tomato salsa or yogurt dip for sundowners or take them along to a potluck!
Cut the steamed breadfruit (about 1 wedge/person) into cubes, chop some onion finely, add two tbsp. vinegar and some salt and let stand for 1+ hour. Mix in mayonnaise or yogurt and salt/pepper/parsley to serve like potato salad with grilled dishes.
Or: add lettuce, beans, green peppers, apples, mango or whatever else you like for a mixed salad. Serve with a balsamic/olive oil dressing.
Cut the steamed breadfruit into thin slices and fry crisp in a lightly oiled pan. Serve with dips for sundowners or as a side dish for dinner.
Simply replace potatoes with raw breadfruit cubes in your favorite Indian or Thai curries. Note, breadfruit is so starchy it thickens sauces!
For more info about Birgit, Christian and their ship’s cat Leeloo visit www.pitufa.at.