Known as the Ulu, the breadfruit tree is an important species found throughout the Hawaiian island chains. While non-native to the islands, it has become an important sustenance crop for food, shelter and canoe building. Much like any important cultural crop, it also has a fascinating origin story behind it that has been passed down through generations of oral story-telling – but we will get to that part in a bit.
So what does it taste like? With a moniker like Breadfruit you would hope that there was some reasoning behind it, and there is. While non-palatable raw, the fruit can be cooked and eaten and is purported to taste like freshly baked bread; at least that’s what they were trying to make people believe as they transported it as a “superfood” to British slave colonies. While the “bread” in fruit may be wishful propaganda – others have described it’s fibrous pulp as tasteless and bland.
“Though the common name “breadfruit” comes from the fruit’s supposed resemblance to fresh-baked bread, the broader consensus is that its taste is bland to blah. Some compare it to a cross between undercooked potato and plantain. Others mention wallpaper paste”. – Rupp
Breadfruit, while not native to the Polynesian Islands, had a long history of being cultivated as a prize crop long before European settlers discovered it. This is partly due to its usefulness as canoe building materials, both the wood itself and the latex sap that can be used for water proofing. As canoes were built, sea voyagers were taken, and islands inhabited, the Breadfruit tree spread along the canoe trade routes long before the Europeans were around. Breadfruit was officially “discovered” by Captain Cook on one of his voyages to Tahiti in 1769. The latter spread of Breadfruit – especially through the Caribbean can be traced back to the British colonization and the quest for cheap food. The high starch content of the breadfruit and the copious amount of fruit it produces made it an ideal and cheap food source. It was in fact, on a breadfruit cultivating mission that Captain Bligh met his end at the hands of his mutinous crew aboard The Bounty. Led by one Fletcher Christian the treasonous crew threw the breadfruit trees overboard, right before the Captain himself. Rumor has it that one of the crimes Bligh was accused of was with-holding water from the crew to keep the plants alive- so perhaps at least the breadfruit trees deserved their fate.
My favorite origin story for the Breadfruit tree was collected by Abraham Fornander in his Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-Lore from Kaawaloa, Kona. This story starts with a dying old man who, worried about his family’s welfare once he departs, makes his children a dying wish:
“If I die, both of you watch the tree that may grow at the door of our house; its fruit shall be your food; the hands and hairs are the roots of that breadfruit tree, the legs are its branches, the testicle is the fruit thereon” – Fornander 676-8
After the old man’s death the fruit began to sprout fruit, saving the family from starvation now that their main hunter had passed on. After a while the lesser forty thousand gods and the four hundred thousand gods came across the fruit and tried it, but found it was completely inedible raw. Next they tried placing it on hot coals and were happy to find that this softened the flesh and allowed them to eat the sweet fruit. Excited they ran to the higher gods Kane and Kanaloa and informed them of their discovery, but one should know that those omniscient often already know things we wish we’d known in hindsight. Kane and Kanaloa revealed to the other gods that the breadfruit was in fact the testicles of a dead man. Now it is probably fairly safe to say that even the idea of eating a dead man’s testicles made you gag a little bit , so you can imagine the reaction from the lesser gods. They started vomiting, vomiting on a scale that surpassed most things. These gods vomited their way from Kona to Waipio- pretty much the length of the island chain – which is why you can find breadfruit throughout.
So, which next tasty Island treat will you delight in?
Eat, Eat, Eat!!!
Fornander, Abraham. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-Lore. http://www.ulukau.org/elib/cgi-bin/library?c=fornander5&l=en
Rupp, Rebecca. Breadfruit and ‘The Bounty’ That Brought It Across the Ocean. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/food/the-plate/2016/04/28/breadfruit-and-the-bounty-that-brought-it-across-the-ocean/