Breadfruit: Why You Won’t Believe It’s Not Everything Else

October 21st, 2021
Breadfruit: Why You Won’t Believe It’s Not Everything Else

Can this uniquely versatile tropical crop shake off its problematic recent history and become one of the great superfoods of the 21st Century?

If your first taste is the simplest way it’s served, you’ll probably think it’s potato. It might be pulled out of a fire, looking something like a scorched green American football (or British rugby ball), then hacked open and its doughy insides slathered in melted butter. Or it could be served in wafer-thin fried slices, like vegetable chips/crisps. Either way - it doesn’t quite taste like potato, but what else could it be?

Or maybe you’ll get a plate of slices of it stickily cooked in coconut milk, cinnamon, vanilla and lots of sugar - in which case, it’s obviously banana or plantain, right? 

Or maybe you’ll be one of the first to try the cupcakes made from its flour, as recently perfected in a bakery in Haiti. In which case, it’s cake flour or cornflour. Surely?

Welcome to the exciting but confusing world of breadfruit, staple food of the Seychelles and at least 90 other countries around the globe. You’re going to be seeing a lot more of it in decades to come, so if you’re not from the tropics, now is an excellent time to get acquainted.

Breadfruit

Breadfruit

Your first clue to its importance can be seen from the deck of any ship sailing through the Seychelles archipelago, including the one we’ll be taking in October next year. You can’t miss the breadfruit trees because they’ll grow anywhere round here, and require very little tending, and since the fruit are so huge (and the trees are up to 85 feet high) they’re easily seen from afar. They’re also available all year round: a single tree can grow up to 450 pounds of fruit per season, and only take 2-3 years to start yielding a crop. 

The fruit might look a bit strange when they’re on the ground, with their spiky green flesh and soft, stringy yellow innards (imagine something between a fleshier pineapple and a more fibrous ripe avocado) - but they’re a nutritional powerhouse. Each one is high in complex carbohydrates, stuffed with proteins, fiber and micronutrients, and unusually low on the glycemic index, meaning you won’t get the same spike of blood sugar after eating it that you’ll suffer from white bread or potatoes. Combined with how easy they are to grow and their high yield per tree, they’re an obvious choice for an efficient crop that’ll feed a lot of people.

This is exactly what British botanist Joseph Banks concluded, when his ship discovered breadfruit in Tahiti in 1769. What better source of nutrition for the slaves on all the sugar plantations across the British West Indies? Upon returning home he petitioned King George III - and in 1789, a ship was despatched to Tahiti to load up with breadfruit seedlings and take them to St. Vincent and Jamaica.

That ship was HMS Bounty - and while you probably know much of its story, you may be unaware what a central role that breadfruit had in the most famous mutiny in history. One of the rebellious crew’s grievances was their lack of water. The apparent reason for this: to keep over a thousand breadfruit seedlings alive, it’s said that Commanding Lieutenant Bligh used much of the ship’s water supply on them, at the expense of the crew’s water rations. 

Three weeks after setting sail from Tahiti the mutineers took control, and cast Bligh and his followers adrift in an open boat. 

Breadfruit in syrup

Breadfruit in syrup

What happened next is even more remarkable. Bligh sailed to the nearby island of Tofua to find supplies, but was driven back into the sea by hostile natives, losing one of his crew in the process. In desperation, he set sail for the Dutch colony of Coupang, over 3,500 nautical miles away - and covered it in 47 days, navigating using a pocket watch and a sextant and not losing a single crew member in the process. A truly staggering feat of navigation and survival in the direst of circumstances.

But Bligh wasn’t done with breadfruit. After returning home as a hero and accepting a promotion to Captain, he returned to Tahiti in 1791 with a new ship, and loaded up with twice as many breadfruit seedlings. After an arduous voyage in which two-thirds of the plants shrivelled and died, he finally delivered the crop to Jamaica - and helped fuel slavery for decades to come. 

(Not immediately, though. It initially proved so unappetizing to everyone that it was mainly fed to pigs.)

Understandably, breadfruit’s association with the British slave trade tarnished its popularity in many parts of the world. However, this is a relatively recent occurrence, while breadfruit has been important to humanity for at least 3,000 years (after apparently originating in New Guinea, East Indonesia and the Philippines). Despite the best (read: worst) efforts of the British Empire, breadfruit’s status as a fabulously useful staple food that’ll grow pretty much anywhere along the equator is unassailable.

So why aren’t we Northern Europeans and Western-worlders already eating it?

Breadfruit tacos with coconut fish and tropical salsa

Breadfruit tacos with coconut fish and tropical salsa

From a human perspective, there’s only one thing wrong with breadfruit - yet it’s a biggie. Once it’s harvested, it rots extremely quickly: good news if you prefer eating the slightly fermented version where all the starch turns to sugar, meaning you can tuck into it raw (where apparently it tastes like sweet custard) - but really bad news when it comes to storage. 

Until recently, there’s been no way to reliably preserve and store breadfruit once it’s picked. But it seems the answers are coming at last. One technique, pioneered at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, has found a way to shred and dry the flesh of the fruit to the point it can be ground into a multipurpose flour, using hand-powered tools that are suitable for any climate and any budget. You could soon be seeing breadfruit pastas, porridges, cereals and baked goods on your shelves, wherever you are in the world. (There’s even a breadfruit burrito on the way.)

But for now, you’re best served by tradition, not innovation. As in so many other places, the Seychellois have spent hundreds of years learning how to baked, boiled, fried, steamed, grilled and barbecued breadfruit (plus, more recently, microwave) and they know a thousand methods of serving it that will baffle & delight your taste-buds. You may not recognise it when you eat it - but it’s there, and always will be.

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