Breadfruit is a large oblong or round fruit, 8 to 10 inches in diameter and up to 10 pounds in weight, with a thin, bumpy skin that turns green-brown to yellow as the fruit ripens. The meat is cream-colored, mealy, and starchy in texture, and it is blandly sweet, similar to the potato. Thus, it is not eaten as a fruit but as a high carbohydrate vegetable. Mature breadfruit is dark, dull, greenish brown, with stains on the surface from the milky sap that is exuded by the fruit.
On the island of Maui in Hawaii, almost 100 varieties of breadfruit, called “ulu,” are grown at Kahanu Gardens of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
Origin & botanical facts
Native to the Pacific, particularly Polynesia and southeast Asia, the beautiful, smooth barked breadfruit tree grows to about 60 feet tall, with dark-green, palmate leaves up to 3 feet long. Breadfruit was very important in the lives of early Polynesian people, who carried it with them in their canoes and planted trees wherever they settled throughout the Pacific Islands. In Hawaiian tradition, breadfruit is a symbol of creation and of the creator’s generosity and love. Today, however, the largest producers of breadfruit are the Caribbean Islands.
Each breadfruit actually is composed of thousands of small fruit growing together around a core. Breadfruit is generally picked while it is firm and before it ripens, becomes overly sweet, and falls to the ground. Breadfruit grows in hot, wet, tropical lowlands, tolerating a variety of well drained soils. The fruit is propagated from shoots that develop from the tree’s roots, or from root cuttings themselves. The tree produces an extensive root system, so it must be planted where it will have room to grow. It does not transplant easily. Trees bear fruit 5 to 7 years after the shoots are planted, and generally two crops of fruit mature during the year, once between April and June, and once between October and January. Breadfruit must be harvested by hand, by climbing the tree and cutting or snapping off the stem close to the branch. If knocked from the tree, bruises will cause rapid softening. Because individual breadfruits do not develop at the same rate, each tree must be harvested several times during the season.
Breadfruit that is slightly soft with a yellow to tan rind and no bruises should be chosen. The fruit can be stored up to 10 days if wrapped in plastic and placed in a cool area. Like squash or potatoes, breadfruit can be peeled and boiled, steamed, baked, grilled, stir-fried, or made into a salad resembling potato salad. It also can be preserved through fermentation. In Hawaii it is sometimes pounded into a paste called “ulu poi.” (Hawaiian poi usually is made from taro root.) Despite its name, it is not used to make bread. In the Pacific, the sap and wood of the breadfruit plant have various non culinary uses. Breadfruit is sold fresh in some ethnic markets or specialty stores, or it is sometimes available canned.