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Why It’s Time to Embrace Breadfruit

How Hawai‘i chefs and scientists are introducing the superfood to the world

Sliced breadfruit on a cutting board.

At the northernmost point of the main Hawaiian islands, a stone’s throw from where a plantation once grew and milled sugar cane, sits a restaurant 25 years in the making. Chef/owner Tom Pickett has tweaked his menu (gone are the wedding cakes) and experimented with ingredients (think smoked wahoo on a pizza) to create a bakery by day and pizza shop by night. These are the creative ways an entrepreneur survives — and in Pickett’s case, thrives — on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

And while Kilauea Bakery & Pau Hana Pizza may feel remote even in its location on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Pickett’s restaurant is still perfectly poised to evangelize for a local superfood likely unheard of on the mainland: breadfruit.

With origins in Papua New Guinea, breadfruit followed human migration for thousands of years throughout the South Pacific. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), a member of the mulberry family, grows on canopy-dense trees. With its pimply surface, the fruit can grow to the size of a cantaloupe or football, and its English name derives from the scent given off when cooked.

Breadfruit can be used throughout all stages of its ripening, from its dense immature stage to the starchier mature stage and to its sweet ripe stage. Early populations baked the fruit in an underground oven or roasted it in fire. Then, it was often cubed and served warm in coconut milk. Though the taste of the fruit itself varies widely depending on when it’s harvested and how it’s prepared, in this form, its closest cousin to texture and taste would be a potato. In Hawai‘i and elsewhere, agroforests of breadfruit once striated the islands, but fell out of favor as new agricultural economies and cultures with their own favored foods moved in.

Breadfruit on the inside. Kim Rogers

But Pickett — and others — are turning tradition on its head. “I wasn’t inhibited by prior experience,” says Pickett, who grew up in California. He turned to breadfruit as a starch substitute when a friend asked what he’d do if the barges stopped shipping food to the islands. “I did things that hadn’t been done before," he says. "Because I didn’t know [what to do with it].” As a result, Pickett is implementing the ingredient in an unexpected and innovative form, using it to make bagels and bialys.

Chefs across Hawai‘i — including the renowned Sam Choy, who along with 11 other chefs, made Hawaii Regional Cuisine a movement in the 1990s — have embraced breadfruit, using it as a substitute for potatoes in salad and soups, in stir fry, and even as a main dish. Part of that resurgence is likely due to its myriad nutritional qualities: It’s a good source of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, thiamine, and niacin; low in fat; and high in fiber and protein. And here comes a buzzword in today’s diet: It’s gluten-free.

Pickett first started experimenting by making tortillas with a neighbor’s breadfruit. “The more I got into it,” he says, “the more amazing the fruit turned out to be for bread and pastry.” Next, he may add a breadfruit crust for Pau Hana Pizza’s nightly pies. Pickett — who also experiments in making his own equipment, a talent that comes in handy when you live on an island a couple thousand miles from the U.S. mainland — is tinkering with a special device to process breadfruit in quantity. Solomon Islanders used to do something similar by drying breadfruit over a wood fire and reconstituting it in water during the off-season.

Pickett has ideas in abundance. “I’ve opened the box,” he says. “And every new thing I do with breadfruit generates more discoveries.” He imagines the day breadfruit will be packaged and sold as dehydrated noodles, fruit tarts, and frozen pastry dough. He envisions a Mexican-themed food truck with an entire menu of breadfruit. “They’re all possible businesses,” he says. “But I’m not going to do them. I don’t need another job. I’m just having fun in the kitchen.”

Breadfruit in bagels and bialys. Kim Rogers

Elsewhere, other entrepreneurs are focusing more on breadfruit’s healthy aspects. Over on Maui, John Cadman is turning the ripe fruit into pies that are not only gluten-free but dairy- and sugar-free. “I wasn’t really seeking to go full time in the breadfruit production business,” Cadman says. “I was coming up with healthy dessert recipes for personal reasons, and I left a breadfruit in my truck and forgot about it. When it ripened, it gave off this beautiful aromatic smell, and I had an ingredient epiphany. That was birth of Pono Pies.”

In 2013, Cadman would drive around neighborhoods, looking for breadfruit trees, then knock on doors and ask people if he could buy their fruit. Now, he has a dozen growers delivering to him, and his pies are available in retail markets like Whole Foods. His bestseller is made with lilikoi, Hawai‘i’s word for passionfruit, giving it a nice zest similar to lemon curd. Now, he’s making a “hummus” which is 90 percent breadfruit. “You can safely say it’s totally amazing,” he says.

Dr. Diane Ragone agrees. “John’s hummus,” she says, and trails off. “It’s so fluffy. The texture. It’s fantastic.” Ragone heads the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), headquartered on Kauai. She’s spent 30 years collecting breadfruit cultivars — and the ethnobotanical stories associated with them — from places like Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia. Approximately 120 varieties from 34 islands grow at NTBG’s Kahanu Garden on Maui; Cadman now sources some of his breadfruit from there, as well.

Ragone aims to solve the supply problem and return breadfruit to its status as a staple alongside other starches such as potatoes, rice, and cassava. Since 2012, she’s distributed 10,000 saplings in partnership with 200 organizations across Hawai‘i. On Hawai‘i island, a cooperative of farmers has formed to supply breadfruit. “We’re just on the cusp,” Ragone says. “A lot of fruit is maturing and now becoming available.”

Hawai‘i is only a small archipelago in Ragone’s efforts to bring breadfruit to some of the world’s most poverty-stricken areas. She won’t say breadfruit can solve world hunger, and that may be an exaggeration, anyway. But her efforts could position breadfruit as one of the world’s most important agricultural crops in the 21st century. In 2010, she partnered with the Global Hunger Initiative, which has since provided 90,000 trees to more than 40 countries. That was preceded by years of research into the nutritional value of various breadfruit varieties, and in perfecting the mass propagation of tissue cultures to meet shipping regulations.

Breadfruit on the tree. Kim Rogers

Growing breadfruit is a fairly easy endeavor, and Ragone compares its productivity to a field crop — without all the labor. The trees start fruiting within three to five years and can conservatively produce a couple hundred fruit annually for generations. That’s way more breadfruit than a family, even a large one, could eat, and for the enterprising person, it presents an economic opportunity.

“The reality is people want to grow food for their families, but they also want a product they can sell,” Ragone says. “This one man told me, ‘I need to buy school supplies for my children.’”

The breadfruit movement is gaining momentum. At the recent Global Breadfruit Summit, a gathering of leading scientists, cultural practitioners, and entrepreneurs from around the world, one key area of focus was community economic development. Novel ideas are cropping up across breadfruit-growing communities, per Ragone. A woman in Costa Rica is experimenting with chips. In Puerto Rico, someone else is making French fries. Another is making tostones. Other products are coming out of Jamaica.

Then, there’s flour. “To me, flour is ideal in that it allows you to harvest and dry it and use it in other products,” like pancake mix, Ragone says.

And interestingly enough, when breadfruit is dried, its nutrients are concentrated, making it a high-protein flour alternative. “The raw fruit of the ma`afala variety has two to three percent protein,” Ragone says. “When dry, the protein is almost eight percent.”

Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration ruled breadfruit safe for use in flour. That means one day soon you may find it next to brown rice flour, coconut flour, almond flour, and other gluten-free options in your grocery’s baking aisle.

Back at Kilauea Bakery & Pau Hana Pizza on Kauai, regulars — like myself — are hoping for the day Pickett adds a breadfruit crust to his pizza menu. The “Big Blue” with smoked wahoo, tomatoes, capers, garlic, parsley, and mozzarella cheese, in particular, would be fantastic on the breadfruit crust. Not just for taste reasons, but because it’ll also feel good to eat healthier — while at the same time supporting my breadfruit-growing neighbors.

Kim Steutermann Rogers, writer and photographer, lives with her three chickens, two dogs, and one husband on Kauai.

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