If you have ever found yourself wishing that baguettes grew on trees — and who among us hasn’t? — we offer up a consolation prize: Should you spot what looks like a bumpy, melon-sized dinosaur egg on the shelf of your local market, consider taking it home with you. This Jurassic treasure is actually a breadfruit, a starchy ball that smells like warm bread when baked and has such versatility you could theoretically enjoy it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.
Breadfruit grows primarily in tropical parts of the world, but, if you live outside of these regions, it can sometimes be found fresh in Caribbean or Indian grocery stores. Some grocery stores also carry bagged frozen breadfruit; freeze-dried breadfruit, which springs back when rehydrated, can be purchased online. Eater became better acquainted with this fruit thanks to our friends at Gastropod, who recently spent time in Hawai‘i talking with the growers, botanists, and scientists in the breadfruit’s ever-expanding fan club — a group that thinks it might just be the fruit that could save the world. You’ll need to listen to the episode to find out why (hint: It has to do with the tree’s resilience in the face of both droughts and tropical storms, increasingly important in the time of climate change, as well as its incredible productivity) — but in the meantime, put on this breadfruit-themed bop from Jamaica, pick out a breadfruit recipe, and follow our guide to making the best of this extraordinarily versatile ingredient.
What is breadfruit?
It’s not bread that grows on trees, though it comes pretty close. Breadfruit is a fruit that grows to be around the size of a cantaloupe or even larger, like a volleyball, with nubbly or spiky green skin that turns more yellowish in tone as it ripens. The fruit’s cream-colored flesh is soft and starchy — in fact, it’s the only staple starch that literally grows on trees — and it’s often substituted for rice or potatoes. Like rice or potatoes, breadfruit is gluten-free, while also being full of fiber, high in antioxidants, and rich with potassium and calcium.
Breadfruit grows on magnificent, 80-foot-tall trees and is thought to originate somewhere in the South Pacific. By the time Western explorers first recorded this fruit, it had spread across most of Oceania in the Pacific, which includes islands and island groups such as the Philippines, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawai‘i. Since most of the popular varieties of breadfruit are seedless and primarily reproduce through root shoots or cuttings, it couldn’t have spread across all of those millions of miles of ocean on its own — Polynesian travelers brought baby trees with them in their massive canoes as they explored and settled new lands, a testament to just how useful this plant was to those intrepid explorers.
As handy as it is for hungry humans to have a seedless clone, it does pose a challenge to scientists looking to figure out where and when the progression from seeded wild breadfruit to the modern, seedless version took place. Researchers have figured out that breadfruit’s two closest wild relatives are the Marianas breadfruit, a seeded breadfruit found in the Mariana Islands and Guam, and the breadnut, another spiky tropical fruit with edible seeds found in New Guinea, the Maluku Islands, and the Philippines. DNA testing has provided some more clues: It suggests that people in Melanesia and Polynesia started by propagating shoots from the breadnut tree, selecting for smaller seeds, and then when they migrated to Micronesia, they hybridized these trees with the Marianas breadfruit. Outside of their interest for botanical history, these studies also shed light on another mystery: Because seedless breadfruit can only be spread by humans, tracking the genetics of this tree across space and time can also help historians figure out the pattern of early migration across the Pacific.
How do you grow breadfruit?
Most varieties of breadfruit don’t have seeds and need to be grown through root shoots or cuttings. Root shoots are new, baby trees that pop up from the roots of a mother tree, and they’re often generated when the elder tree has been damaged. These shoots can be removed when they’re around a foot tall and planted in soil. Similarly, when a breadfruit tree is not actively fruiting, it’s safe to cut pieces of the tree’s roots and replant those in soil, where they will grow into new baby trees.
Young breadfruit trees need fertilizing and mulching, and, while still saplings, protection from high winds and the hungry nibbling of herbivores like deer. When mature, however, breadfruit trees are a pretty low-maintenance crop. They grow strong and resilient, and they’re often among the only trees left standing after powerful hurricanes or cyclones. These trees start producing fruit at around three years old, and one tree can produce up to 450 pounds of fruit every year for the rest of its lifespan, which can be 50 years or more.
These trees are so self-sufficient that they don’t even need pollination. While breadfruit trees do flower, and while bees are said to be big fans of their pollen, they don’t need the help of those bees in order to produce fruit. (Fun fact: This evolutionary quirk is called parthenocarpy, and it’s a natural consequence of human selection for seedless fruits.)
In Hawaiian mythology, when famine and drought struck the islands, the god Kū buried himself in the dirt, and the first breadfruit — ‘ulu in Hawaiian — rose from where he lay. Indeed, Hawaiian breadfruit grower Scott Fisher told Gastropod that breadfruit’s hardiness and productivity has made it known as a plant that historically stood as a safety net for Hawaiian families.
“One common practice was, when your child was born, you would plant an ‘ulu. So it’s meant to be identified with an individual as a protector,” Fisher says. “‘Ulu is something that has guided our people and protected our people during times of hardship and famine, as well as being just a wonderful crop even in the best of times.”
What does breadfruit taste like?
While that might make it sound like eating breadfruit is a bit of a chore — something you’re forced to swallow when nothing else is available — Gastropod can attest that it is absolutely delicious. In Hawai‘i, the hosts were fortunate enough to enjoy a meal prepared by James Beard finalist and Top Chef contender Sheldon Simeon, author of Cook Real Hawai‘i, and he prepared both traditional and modern versions of the fruit, the former steamed and served with heated coconut oil and the latter diced into a herby German potato salad. Both were incredible — potentially (whisper it) better than potato?! For dessert, they tried the Maui Breadfruit Company’s Pono Pies: delicious mini-cheesecake-style treats made from breadfruit, macadamia nuts, honey, and almond milk.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to fresh, whole breadfruit, you can select the right fruit for your cooking project based on different stages of ripeness. Bright green, underripe fruits are said to have a similar flavor to artichoke hearts, and are popular as pickles, though they can be eaten raw or boiled and added to any normal recipe. When breadfruit is fully ripe, it’s a little softer and at its most starchy, with a mild flavor similar to a nutty potato. In fact, it rivals the potato in its versatility: At the mature stage, breadfruit can be cooked in practically any way you can imagine — steamed, fried, grilled, baked, boiled, pressure-cooked, you name it — and transformed into everything from breads and crackers to chips or fries. When overripe, breadfruit becomes sweeter and soft like a pudding, with a flavor commonly compared to sour banana. These breadfruits are often eaten raw or used to make desserts such as cakes or pies.
How do you prepare breadfruit for cooking?
Breadfruit skin contains a sticky latex sap that can gum up a knife and cutting board, so once you’ve gotten your hands on one, the Breadfruit Institute first recommends snapping off the stem and turning the fruit upside down to drain the sap, ideally the day before you intend to cook with it. Once you’re ready to start cooking, cut the top off the breadfruit so it can stand on its end, making it easier to halve or quarter. Keep washing your knife as you cut, as any leftover sap will form a sticky residue.
From here on out, the rest of the process is the chef’s choice. You can remove the fruit’s core (which is tough like a pineapple’s) now or after you’ve cooked it; the same goes with the skin, though it will be easier to peel after cooking. Similarly, you can cut and cook the breadfruit depending on how you want to use it. Roast the fruit whole on an open flame or a grill to eat it like a baked potato, or halve it and bake it flesh side-down in an inch of water until it’s perfectly tender and ready to accompany fish or toss in a stew. Slice breadfruit into matchsticks to fry in oil or butter, like excellent french fries. Boil or steam quartered fruit to retain moisture in the flesh, or parcook it through either of these methods to be frozen and used later.
How do people around the world enjoy breadfruit?
When Europeans arrived in Polynesia and encountered breadfruit for the first time, they were astounded by the breadfruit’s prolific production and saw immediate value in its nutritious, filling fruit. By that time, the breadfruit had already spread across Oceania and into Southeast Asia, but with European help, it spread even further. The British brought it to the Caribbean in order to feed slaves; this was actually the mission of the infamous HMS Bounty, whose mutineers ensured the trees never arrived at their destination. And while breadfruit still has an understandably negative reputation in some parts of the Caribbean thanks to that connection, it has been incorporated into many dishes across the region, as well as into cuisine throughout Central America and in some African countries.
In Jamaica (the home of the world’s best breadfruit tune!), breadfruit is often roasted and served as a side to jerk meats and fish. In India, where some regions know breadfruit as “jegujje,” you’ll find it stewed into curries and deep-fried. In Nigeria, a variety of seeded breadfruit called “ukwa” is used to make a traditional savory porridge. Malaysian chefs batter and fry breadfruit to serve with African tea, while in Guam, cooked and mashed breadfruit is spread into a thin layer and dried to make fruit leather.
Sweet, overripe breadfruit is popularly blended into a smoothie in Jamaica, where it’s often mixed with a dark beer to make “breadfruit punch.” Here in the States, beer makers took that idea even further. In 2012, Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery and Hawaii’s Maui Brewing Company collaborated on a beer called Liquid Breadfruit, an imperial golden ale brewed with Maui breadfruit and toasted papaya seeds. As far as we know, it was only a limited release, but it shows just how far this Polynesian staple can go.
Take a crack at cooking breadfruit for yourself with one of these breadfruit recipes, most of which will be just as tasty with frozen or freeze-dried fruit as with fresh:
Shashi Charles’s Spicy Breadfruit Fries
Rawlston Williams’s Stewed Chicken and Breadfruit
Island Smile’s Sri Lankan Breadfruit Curry
Arriel Bullock’s Jamaican Breadfruit Punch
Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative’s Soft Baked ‘Ulu Mochi
Anissa Lucero’s ‘Ulu Cheesecake
…and many, many more from the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute