What Does Breadfruit Actually Taste Like?

4 years ago

When my husband and I settled on a honeymoon itinerary that would take us from island nation to island nation in the South Pacific, I looked up what food was native to the cultures we'd be visiting. Breadfruit, or ulu, as it's known locally, is very common in both Samoa and American Samoa, both places we'd be visiting along the way.

I was thrilled. As a kid, I'd loved reading Robinson Crusoe and other shipwreck-themed novels, and I had a strong memory of Robinson surviving on breadfruit and coconuts on his mostly deserted island. In fact, I even remembered a vintage line drawing from my copy of Crusoe that featured breadfruit dangling from their branches, surrounded by big, multilobed leaves.

Image Credit: Genie Gratto

"I have to try breadfruit while we're there," I announced to my husband. "I have always wanted to taste it."

As a kid, I imagined breadfruit tasting like, well, freshly baked bread. My research indicated I should reset my expectations to something more akin to yucca or potato—something starchy and fairly bland.

Though I've visited parts of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii, and even lived in Nigeria, all of which are also places breadfruit thrive, I'd never even seen a breadfruit in the, well, flesh. This honeymoon would be my opportunity to remedy this once and for all.

Though we were on an island in Vanuatu that has breadfruit, apparently, we didn't see it there. We saw plenty of it dangling from trees in Samoa, trees I recognized instantly from my memories of the aforementioned line drawing, but never found it on the menu anywhere we went.

It was not until New Year's Day in American Samoa, at a place called Tisa's Barefoot Bar on Alega Bay, that it finally appeared. We ordered a round of breadfruit fries, which came out in crisp slices, with a visible honeycombing toward the inside edge. Anything fried properly will be good, and these were along the line of tostones—just a little chewy on the inside, and crisp on the outside.

Image Credit: Genie Gratto

But I still wanted to work with it myself. I had identified a recipe that was called a Breadfruit Pie, but was more of a breadfruit gratin, or a breadfruit-and-cheese. It required boiling the breadfruit first, then baking it in a casserole layered with béchamel. Cheesy? Starchy? How could this possibly go wrong?

Two days later, we hit the First Fridays market in Pago Pago, a bustling evening market featuring plenty of local prepared foods, a few informational booths about public health and the island's National Park, a shave ice vendor, a Pentecostal church group performance, and plenty of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Papaya, avocado, coconut, and, of course, breadfruit were all in season.

Image Credit: Genie Gratto

It appeared all the breadfruit was for sale in woven baskets of maybe eight to ten individual fruit for $7, and since each one weighed anywhere from two to six pounds, that was no small amount of breadfruit. I lifted a good-sized one from one of the baskets and carried it up to the vendor.

"How much for one?" I asked.

"One?" He looked at me incredulously. Apparently no one in Pago Pago buys just a single breadfruit. "One dollar."

We paid the man his buck and were on our way, desert island delicacy in tow.

When we got it home, my husband noticed the breadfruit had certain mathematical properties. "It is a natural Voronoi diagram," he said, admiring its lumpy, dotted skin.

It was also giving off a milky fluid I later learned is actually latex, so we put it in the refrigerator to stave off the flow.

The next evening, I organized my ingredients and began attacking the breadfruit, carefully following the instructions in my chosen recipe. I sliced off the top, then cut it into halves, then quarters. Peeling, coring, and slicing it reminded me a bit of working with a butternut squash, particularly when considering I was using a less-than-stellar knife in our rental lodge kitchen. Anything round and hard that must be peeled is likely to lead to a bit of frustration, I find. I was grateful to only have to prep a single ulu, rather than an entire basket of the suckers.

Image Credit: Paul Edmondson

Per the recipe, I boiled the slices in salted water for a bit, then prepped the cheese sauce. I had to improvise just a bit, substituting powdered cayenne for the recipe's suggestion of a Scotch bonnet pepper—no such pepper was to be found anywhere we shopped on American Samoa—and I left out the ground mustard, which I was also not able to source anywhere we went. But I added extra salt and pepper to compensate, and sauteed an entire chopped onion and chopped red bell pepper together, and layered that in the middle, as well, to give the casserole more depth of flavor.

Image Credit: Genie Gratto

The recipe made enough for two 8-by-8 pans—I figured we'd have one for dinner, and one for lunch the next day. "I hope you like it," I announced to my husband. "We have a lot of it."

Once assembled, the casserole went in the oven, and came out looking golden brown and beautiful. My husband and I eagerly tucked into our plates of Breadfruit Pie, him first, then me following.

Image Credit: Genie Gratto

"Is it OK?" I asked after his first bite.

"It's good," he said. "Needs more salt."

I followed his lead and salted my serving before putting the first bite in my mouth.

That first bite was, well, fine. Indeed, breadfruit seems to be pretty bland, and the casserole, accordingly, was not altogether exciting. But I found myself having a really strange reaction to the texture of the baked ulu—I was having trouble getting it down. Trust me when I say this doesn't happen often, folks. I eat just about everything, even if I don't love it. But my husband was puzzled at how much difficulty I was having with it.

"I think it's fine," he said. "It's kind of like a potato casserole." He went back for seconds, while I considered myself victorious in eating a single serving, and was already wondering whether someone in the neighborhood might be interested in taking our other pan and baking it themselves.

My verdict? I'm very glad that I got to try breadfruit and to cook with it in American Samoa, where it's local, fresh, and in season. I'm also glad I got to try two different ways of making it, which means I still go home with a memory of a breadfruit preparation I liked. But I probably would try a different preparation if I made it again—while the recipe I used worked just fine, I simply didn't love it.

Be assured of this: I'm going to hang onto that long-ago memory, when I thought breadfruit tasted like freshly baked bread, and I was jealous of Robinson Crusoe's desert island diet. But knowing what I know now, if I happen to shipwreck onto a deserted, South Pacific island, I'll probably rely more on the coconuts for sustenance than my long-romanticized breadfruit.

Genie blogs about gardening and food at The Inadvertent Gardener, and tells very short tales at 100 Proof Stories.

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