When I was in elementary school, my parents rented a house on Aukai Avenue in Kahala while they looked for a place to buy on the beach.
Out in back, a huge breadfruit tree grew by the garage. It was neglected and despised for the messy green fruits it dropped on the garage roof and the driveway, where the ripe fruit sat until it rotted into smelly piles of pulp.
Sometimes, my friends and I collected the pulp to use as a key ingredient in the stink bombs we concocted to throw at our neighborhood enemies.
After so many years of considering breadfruit only as a weapon to shock and awe my neighbors, it has taken me a long time to think of putting it in my mouth.
And that’s been the problem for many people in many places through the ages who have shunned breadfruit as a food.
Breadfruit aversion had a part in the “Mutiny on the Bounty” story.
The Bounty crew mutinied in 1789 when the infamous ship’s commander, William Bligh, employed them to bring breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the British West Indies. King George III had encouraged English sugar plantation owners in the Caribbean to grow breadfruit as a cheap, nutritious food to feed their slaves.
The Bounty crew loathed Bligh for many reasons, one being that they thought he was hogging their precious drinking water to irrigate his breadfruit cargo. When they mutinied, they angrily flung all the breadfruit plants into the ocean.
Bligh and his supporters made it to safety in their small skiff and two years later, he launched another voyage to deliver breadfruit seedlings to slave owners in St. Vincent and Jamaica. But the mission was a failure. The slaves hated breadfruit and tossed it out to feed their pigs.
Breadfruit advocate and agro-forest scientist Craig Elevitch is in Laie this week as one of the key speakers at the Hawaii Pacific Global Breadfruit Summit at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
I told Elevitch about my early aversion to breadfruit.
“I totally understand,” he said. “I think your opinion is common. I once felt the same way about eating breadfruit.”
Elevitch said he and other scientists have been working with chefs to demonstrate how breadfruit, called ulu in Hawaiian, can be turned into delicious dishes, including breadfruit fries, breadfruit chips and a breadfruit salad similar to potato salad.
“Once a person experiences breadfruit harvested at the right time and cooked in a tasty way, the myth that it is inferior food completely disappears,” said Elevitch.
More than 150 people from the Caribbean and the Pacific are at the breadfruit summit that runs through Wednesday to share their ideas on how to increase the production and consumption of breadfruit.
Their larger goal is to turn breadfruit into a successful commercial crop. Up until now, for the most part, breadfruit has been grown in small quantities for local consumption.
Chef Sam Choy spoke at the summit Saturday, showing off ulu dishes to encourage people to include it as a starch in their everyday meals. Some of Choy’s past creations have included breadfruit seafood chowder and breadfruit salad.
Breadfruit’s low glycemic index (the effect on a person’s blood sugar level) is healthier than potatoes and white rice. It has more protein, more fiber and more vitamin A.
That low glycemic index means it is slower to cause the blood sugar level to spike, which is good for diabetics.
Failautusi “Tusi” Avegalio Jr., the director of the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Business Center and one of the organizers of the breadfruit summit, wants to bring breadfruit back to the central place it once held in Pacific Islanders’ diet and address today’s soaring rates of obesity and diabetes. Even young children in the Pacific are suffering from those problems.
“My personal passion has been to save the kids,” said Avegalio.
Pacific Islanders have been getting sicker and sicker ever since massive amounts of canned and processed foods were introduced to their diet during World War II. Bread, pastries and white rice have become more popular than taro and breadfruit.
Avegalio has been encouraging mothers in his native Samoa to lure their white bread and rice-loving kids into eating breadfruit by serving it in different ways — pizza made with a breadfruit flour crust or pasta made with breadfruit flour and coconut milk.
“Just by changing a few ingredients in the kitchen, it is possible to change many years of eating behavior,” said Avegalio.
Another benefit of breadfruit is that it is gluten-free, and the demand for gluten-free products has skyrocketed. Avegalio believes the gluten-free nature of breadfruit may do more than anything to elevate the crop’s status.
“Because it is gluten-free, it has started to gain interest. It has really catapulted breadfruit onto the global market. Today, it has the makings of a tidal wave,” he said.
He said interest is evident in the demand for such products as Pono Pies sold at Whole Foods Market on Maui and Oahu and other locations on Maui.
Pono Pie is the gluten- and sugar-free cheesecake-like dessert made of breadfruit and honey. It was created by John Cadman, the former food service director at Kamehameha Schools’ Maui campus.
But one of the biggest problems for generating interest in breadfruit in Hawaii is there is still not enough of the crop grown here. Cadman has been trying to find enough breadfruit to keep up with the demand for his pies and breadfruit hummus..
“It’s at that awkward stage now where we are trying to get the supply up,” said Cadman, who wishes he had more fruit to create new products like breadfruit flour, chips and french fries.
“It is a kind of chicken and the egg situation,” said agro-forester Elevitch. “Because there is not a widespread demand for breadfruit yet, there is not a lot of it on the market. And because there is not a lot of it sold in markets, people do not have the opportunity to try it and create a demand for more breadfruit.”
To increase tree production, the Breadfruit Institute of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai in the last five years has distributed 10,000 breadfruit trees to yards, farms and communities throughout Hawaii.
Elevitch said the 10,000 trees growing to maturity should do a lot to supply more breadfruit to Hawaii markets, which in turn should help increase consumer awareness and demand.
He said it takes about three years for a tree to begin bearing fruit and about six to eight years for significant production. A mature tree can produce up to 450 pounds of fruit each year.
It would be something to go back to the old days of Hawaii when almost every island, even including the now dry and wind-swept Lanai, was covered with breadfruit forests.
The famous breadfruit forest of Kona stretched for 18 miles. Elevitch said you can still see its remnant trees today while driving on the upper Kona road going toward Captain Cook.
Today’s burning hot Lahaina, Maui was also famous long ago for its cooling breadfruit groves. It was honored in the old proverb “Lahaina I ka malu ulu o Lele” (“Lahaina lies in the shade of the breadfruit trees of Lele”).
In the 1800s, many breadfruit trees in Hawaii were chopped down to make way for cash crops such as cotton, sugar cane and sweet potatoes. They slowly disappeared except for small patches here and there.
Since I no longer am making breadfruit munitions to keep the neighborhood kids in line, I am open-minded to try to love it as a food. Breadfruit advocates make a convincing argument for reinvigorating tree forests to bring back the healthy, homegrown staple once cherished by Hawaiians.
The idea that it is a super-food that could feed a hungry world is exciting,
In June, I found three breadfruits dropped on the sidewalk of Alohea Avenue near the Ruger Market.
When I got home, I urged my husband to use the breadfruit to make an ulu pie I had seen in a recipe by Martha Cheng in Farm and Food Magazine. It tasted like pumpkin pie, only better, because it was made with coconut milk.
Who knows? Maybe breadfruit instead of pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving? Maybe breadfruit chowder instead of tomato soup for dinner?
Maybe a breadfruit stink bomb just for old time’s sake.