Thursday, October 11, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 8: Breadfruit

As I have pointed out before, The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, included Native Hawaiians in all of their consideration of the "American Indians."  As such I always like to include traditional Hawaiian/Polynesian foods here as a result.  So...when I think of Breadfruit, I think of Polynesian Pacific islands and Captain Bligh.  I have never had fresh breadfruit, but I am aware of it's immense importance as a Pacific island staple, but when I looked it up and found that it thought to have originated in Papua....well, that was really a new one on me!!  

A Breadfruit Tree In Honolulu

Wikipedia claims that ancestors of Polynesians found the trees in Papua some 3,500 years ago and gave up the rice production that they brought with them from what is now Taiwan in favor of the tree which was easier to travel over water with.  Now, this follows the most recent theory of the origin of the huge, and geographically widespread, Austronesian language group, was in actually in what used to be called Formosa.  Whether that theory is correct or not, time will likely tell, but if one looks at various Polynesian stories of how the tree came to be some of that at least makes sense.  In many Polynesian stories a brave father or male elder would turn himself into a breadfruit tree during times of famine to feed his family.  So, by that standard, it out make sense that somewhere along the way the tree was discovered and saved people from starvation during voyaging. In Hawaiian terms the story that is passed down comes from Ku, the war god, who decided to live humbly amongst humans as a farmer.  He married a human woman and had a family with her.  When famine came to his family and village, he sat by hopelessly as they suffered, until one day he told his wife that he could save them from starvation, but that he would have to leave to do so.  He wife sorrowfully and reluctantly agreed and with that, he disappeared into the ground.  Not knowing what was happening his wife, children and other family grieved his lose, and cried for days and days over the spot where he disappeared; then one day a green shoot appeared and a mighty tree bearing large green fruits grew up.  The family and village ate the fruit and were saved from death by the sacrifice.

Whether is actually came from New Guinea originally or some other part of the south Pacific is immaterial to the fact that it spread wherever Polynesians voyaged.  It does not grow in "New Zealand" or "Easter Island" because they are so far south that the climate is too cold.  I would surmise that before the sweet potato came to them, breadfruit was a much more important crop for food than it now is in the Hawiian islands, but it is still eaten and is a very traditional food; no traditional or "real" Lu'au would be without it baked at least.  In the Hawaiian language it is called "ulu."  For other languages names for this strange fruit click here (oddly enough, there are no Papuan languages on the is list).  

Breadfruit, unlike other food tree of the South Pacific, like coconuts cannot move around without human help (yes, I am suggesting that coconuts do indeed migrate....).  As a result of this, a study mapping the change in the DNA of the breadfruit types around the that huge ocean are helping to map voyaging patterns and to pin point dates.  This is important because, in very many cases, it is proving that many of the island inhabitants who say that they have been where they are for thousands of years, including in Hawaii, are proving to be absolutely true.  This tree, in a way, is helping them to "prove" their "nativeness."  It is also going a long way toward providing a better look at agriculture in the Pacific islands; something that for a long time was utterly denied by European travellers, who maintained that these "island cannibal savages" more or less just stumbled all over themselves, just eating what was convenient.  This is tree proves that they literally traveled the expanses of the Pacific with agriculture in tow.  Something that no other groups of people have ever done on such a huge scale--period.

Pounding earthen baked Ulu

Breadfruit has now spread into the Caribbean and has made it's way into the island diets there, including that of Native tribal remnants and meztizo/metis communities there.  How it got there is one hell of an amusing least I think so.  It involves the most famous mutiny is the history of ocean voyaging.  I'm sure that most older people have at least heard of the mutiny that took place on the HMS Bounty captained by one William Bligh, even if it is only through the film Mutiny on the Bounty.  Not many people are aware, however, that the whole voyage was over breadfruit!  The whole idea was transport this food for use to feed slave workers on plantations in the "West Indies." I don't want to linger on a lot of details here, those can be found on the HMS Bounty Wikipedia page; suffice to say things didn't go as planned to sail to Breadfruit saplings from Tahiti to Jamaica. The mutiny occurred in Togan waters and led by an officer William Christian (who was later described in several sources as exhibiting behavior that could be described today as "unstable").  Bligh and the crew that sided with him where set adrift, while Christian to the Bounty back to Tahiti, where it remained until it became clear that the mutineers were going to be rounded up by the Royal Navy.  They eventually made it to Pitcairn Island with 18 Tahitian women tow (it was reported that most were actually kidnapped).  Bligh and men eventually made it to Timor (that's a LONG way!) and the whole endeavour had to be started over again.  With Bligh commanding a second voyage on the HMS Providence that successfully transported more plants to the Caribbean in 1792, only to have the enslaved populations there refuse to eat them in protest (and one can in no way blame them!!).

Breadfruit Coo Coo cooking over an open fire in the Caribbean

In it's original range, Breadfruit trees had a myriad of uses.  Not only did it provide a staple food, all parts of the tree were used for everything from medicine to canoe glue.  It's leaves, made into a tea have implication for treating high blood sugar, as it serves as a natural regulator; the tea has also been used to treat high blood pressure, though it unclear if it is good for that on it's own, or just that condition in people with Type 2 Diabetes.  The root reportedly have been used to treat constipation.  It has also been used to treat eye disorders and used as a rub for pinched nerves.  It's lumber is useful for a number of things as well, and can be pounded out to make the paper like tapa; canoes made from the wood are naturally termite resistant.  The sap has also been used to trap birds.  When you had this to all the things that can actually be done with the fruit itself, Breadfruit trees are very useful trees indeed.  In fact, they are being eyed as a possible answer to some of the world's growing hunger issues.

Fried Breadfruit

Nutritionally Breadfruit lives up to it's name in the since of being a source of carbohydrates.  It is fairly high in calcium, a must for a non-dairy product and is interestingly high in iron for a fruit.  It is very high in vitamin C and a fair source of B1 and Potassium.  In Polynesia, it was traditionally used to supplement poi made from Kalo (taro) or made into 'ulu'poi by itself.  The large main harvest was buried in the ground to ferment, a process that allowed it to be kept up to a year at least.  This is accomplished by peeling and washing the fruits, lying them in leaf lined pits and covered.  Some such pits were said on occasion to still have edible paste after 20 years!  This form of preservation is still practiced on many south Pacific islands to this day.  Other traditional methods of preparing the green fruit include:  roasting, boiling, baking and later, frying.  A common way of using the fermented mash is to mix it with coconut milk and bake it in a banana or ti leaf.  Whole breadfruits can be cored and coconut milk poured in and then roasted over an open fire; in modern times this has "morphed" into a stuffed roasted dish with the fruits containing butter and sugar, dried fruits or even meat mixtures.  In the Caribbean, fresh starchy paste is made from the fruits being called by various names from Coo-Coo (with different spellings) to mofongo.  It has even made it's way into the Mayan diet in Central America, where it is called masapan--from that name I derive that it is considered suitable to make tamales with.  The fruit must be cooked in some fashion to be edible; it cannot be eaten raw.

Fermented Breadfruit Paste in Ti Leaf

In the modern kitchen it is used from start to end of meals; going into all sorts of dishes from appetizers to desserts.  In Hawaii it goes into Ulu Pie, in the New World it is made into small cakes and fried, this has evolved into appetizers that have dipping sauces, in Puerto Rico it is often mixed with salt cod or made into a meat and cheese casserole.  It is also used to make cakes that stuffed with meat and is double fried to make "Tostones." People in the Dominican Republic call it "good bread."  Elsewhere it is made into soups called "Vichyssoise" and also goes into Breadfruit Custard, a dessert.  In Sri Lanka it is cooked in super spicy dishes: Sambals, in parts of India it is "curried," in the Seychelles it serves as a substitute for rice (which is interesting since it is surmised that it was initially used as a rice substitute) and people there claim that if you eat breadfruit there you are destined to return.  It is also made into a spiced dessert there as well.  The Smithsonian has a great article on cooking with breadfruit which includes the recipe for the Ulu and Shrimp cakes shown below and can be assessed here.

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