Breadfruit is a staple fruit across much of the South Pacific, spread by Polynesian people across the Southern Seas during their long sojourns. It can be found in Hawaii, Micronesia, and a variety of other places in between, as long as the weather is warm, because breadfruit cannot tolerate cool climates. It is also cultivated in the Caribbean, where it is eaten in a variety of dishes. This fruit is a member of the mulberry family and resembles mulberry fruits somewhat, although breadfruit is much larger.
The breadfruit tree is a majestic, dark leaved specimen that can reach heights of 85 feet (26 meters). The fruits appear at the tips of the branches in groups of three or less, starting out green and ripening to rich brown or lavender in some varieties. With over 200 known varieties of breadfruit, there are a wide range of sizes, flavors, and colors to choose from. The surface is rough and covered with small four- to six-sided polygonal shapes that sometimes terminate in pliable spines. In shape, the fruit is roughly oblong, depending upon the variety.
There are both seedless and seeded cultivars. The seeded varieties can be grown from seed, although the seeds must be used quickly, because they soon lose the ability to germinate. The seedless variety is cultivated by propagating sucker plants from the roots, which is accomplished by exposing the roots and injuring them. Both varieties produce a high volume of natural latex, which is used as a ripeness indicator.
Breadfruit can be eaten green or ripe. In the green stage, it is treated as a vegetable and requires cooking or processing to be eaten. In the ripe stage, it can be eaten raw.
Green stage breadfruit has a white, starchy interior and is firm to the touch. Ripe fruit has a creamy to yellow flesh, slightly pasty in texture, and is sweet to the taste. Many varieties of tree produce year round, with fruits at various stages of ripeness on the tree at all times. In some cases, there are two or three peak seasons in which there is a higher proportion of ripe fruit.
Breadfruit has been cultivated for centuries by people in the South Pacific, and it came to the attention of Western explorers in the 18th century. Europeans were intrigued by the plant, which was clearly a staple of the Polynesian diet and served a vast majority of the nutritional needs of the Islanders. In the attempt to provide a cheap and steady source of food for the slave trade in the West Indies, breadfruit was carried over with some difficulties and cultivated there as well.
This fruit is rare on the American mainland, and many consumers don't know what to look for in the fruit or how to store it. If using ripened breadfruit, you should look for a slightly soft fruit with an even color and small globules of latex on the surface. Unripe varieties should be firm and evenly green. In both cases, the fruit should be used quickly. It does not handle refrigeration well and should be kept in a thick bag to prevent cold damage.
Breadfruit is often boiled or roasted. When baked, it yields a texture and flavor surprisingly similar to conventional wheat bread. Unripe fruit can also be used to make a flour or paste, which can be used successfully in baking.
It is often used to make poi, a fermented fruit product that is often made with taro as well. Breadfruit is also used to make puddings, candied to create snacks, and fried for chips. In addition, it provides animal fodder in some parts of the world.
Breadfruit is an unusual and underutilized fruit with many interesting properties. Depending on the region, it is prepared in a dizzying array of methods, many of which are quite tasty. While unlikely to take mainland American cuisine by storm in the near future, the fruit is certainly worth trying on tropical adventures.