When next in the Caribbean, be adventurous and try breadfruit – you won’t be disappointed by its delicious taste! Breadfruit is a treasured part of Caribbean food culture and is eaten all across the region due to its versatility and ability to grow in almost any soil condition. The tall evergreen tree produces a hearty bounty two to three times a year and requires so little care that new trees will often spring up from seeds that have fallen on the ground. Even without any human intervention, these will likely mature on their own into fully grown breadfruit trees. Breadfruit trees have also been known to regrow from stumps left after the original tree was cut down.
What is breadfruit
Breadfruit with scientific name Artocarpus altilis is a flowering tree, part of the jackfruit (Moraceae) and mulberry family originating in the South Pacific. Breadfruit trees with hundreds of known variety typically grow to heights above sixty feet and are high yielding. A mature breadfruit tree can produce anywhere from 50 to 150 breadfruits in a given year. The green-skinned fruit weighs anywhere from two to six pounds and can grow as big as a soccer ball, yielding enough food for a family of four.
How did breadfruit get to the Caribbean
Breadfruit trees are believed to have originated in New Guinea and grew abundantly in the Pacific islands where it was prized for its high yielding produce. In the high flying days of the sugar plantation era, European plantation owners needed a sustainable food source for their African slaves but did not want to use sugar lands to grow food. Thus in 1787, Captain William Bligh was given the task to travel to Tahiti and bring back breadfruit seedlings to plant in the islands of Saint Vincent and Jamaica.
Upon arriving in Tahiti, Captain Bligh and his 45 man crew collected and prepared approximately 1,000 breadfruit plants over five months allowing the plants to mature to a level best suited to survive the voyage back to the Caribbean. On the return journey, which started April 1789, conditions aboard HMS Bounty were so adverse that it results in a mutiny 23 days after setting sail. Bligh, along with 18 loyal crew members, were cast adrift in a small boat just 23 feet. Miraculously after a 47-day journey, they were still able to navigate back to Timor, the nearest European settlement, which was 3,618-nautical-miles from their starting beyond.
Upon making his way back to Britain in 1790, Captain Blight was court-martialed and subsequently acquitted for the loss of HMS Bounty. He remained in the British Royal Navy, was made commander of HMS Providence, and in 1791 given a second commission to secure breadfruit seedlings from the Pacific Islands. This second attempt was successful, and Bligh arrived in Saint Vincent on 23 January 1793 with over 500 plants including 300+ breadfruit saplings. Some of the seedless varieties of breadfruit trees were planted at the St Vincent Botanical Gardens in Kingstown, and others were sent to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and other islands in the West Indies.
Note: Visiting the St Vincent Botanical Gardens, one of the oldest in the western hemisphere is one of the top things to do in St Vincent.
Reception to breadfruit in the Caribbean
From the start, breadfruit trees thrived in the Caribbean as the tropical environment is similar to the South Pacific. Initially, though, the African slaves were not too keen on breadfruit. It took some time for them to truly make it their own. Today, breadfruit is eaten more like a vegetable than fruit and has become a treasured part of Caribbean food culture. Breadfruit is a favorite staple food in the diet of many islanders. No longer seen as food for the poorer classes, breadfruit has made its way into many Caribbean recipes from homes to restaurants to hotels. Some Caribbean islands have breadfruit events and festivals, including Saint Vincent which each August has a month-long Breadfruit Festival.
Breadfruit has also attracted international attention as a plant that can provide food in poverty-stricken countries. Though the tree bears mainly in the summer months, if the soil and weather conditions are right, it will bear in abundance several times a year and possibly bring a sustainable food source beyond the Caribbean to many people all over the world.
How to cook breadfruit
Breadfruit can be steamed, boiled, fried, baked, or roasted over a fire. And depending on how it will be prepared, breadfruit is harvested at different stages during growth. The immature fruit is preferred for boiling when it has the taste and consistency of a cross between an Irish and sweet potato. Some people prefer to cook breadfruit in a semi-ripe state when it develops a slightly sweet taste similar to ripe plantains. A fully mature breadfruit is best for baking or roasting as it has a dry texture resembling bread. Breadfruit is typically picked and set aside for a few hours to a day, to allow the white sticky liquid to drain from its center. Breadfruit takes about an hour to cook and is often served with meat or fish.
Breadfruit can also be fried in slices or chips, or to make pancakes or salad. Other innovative ways to prepare breadfruit is the make cakes, cookies, energy bars, pies, and other sweet treats. The ripe breadfruit has even been used to make soft drinks and wine. The sweet custard of a ripe breadfruit can also be eaten raw. As for its nutritional content, breadfruit is gluten-free and low in saturated fat. Breadfruit considered a superfood also has plenty of fiber, carbohydrates, vitamin C, and numerous other minerals.
Where to buy breadfruit
If you are in the Caribbean, the best place to purchase breadfruit is at the local fruits and vegetables market. Similarly, in North America or Europe, check your local Caribbean supermarket. If not the fresh breadfruit, you might be able to pick up some breadfruit chips or breadfruit slices in a can. That said, the fresh breadfruit (preferrable roasted) and breadfruit chips are delicious, but I can’t really vouch for the breadfruit slices in a can.
Note: This post was originally published in December 2014 and updated in January 2020 with new imagery mostly taken in Saint Vincent & The Grenadines.
Ursula Petula Barzey
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