Polynesian Breadfruit

breadfruitThe breadfruit (uru) is the plant most often associated with the South Pacific. The theme of a man turning himself into such a tree to save his family during famine often recurs in Polynesian legends. Ancient voyagers brought breadfruit shoots or seeds from Southeast Asia. When baked in an underground oven or roasted over flames, the fruit of the now-seedless Polynesian variety resembles bread. Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook’s first voyage, wrote: “If a man should in the course of his lifetime plant 10 trees, which if well done might take the labor of an hour or thereabouts, he would completely fulfill his duty to his own as well as future generations.”

The French naturalist Pierre Sonnerat transplanted breadfruit to Reunion in the Indian Ocean as early as 1772, but it’s Captain William Bligh who shall always be remembered when the plant is mentioned. In 1787 Bligh set out to collect young shoots in Tahiti for transfer to the West Indies, where they were to be planted to feed slaves. On the way back, his crew mutinied in Tongan waters and cast off both Bligh and the breadfruit. The indomitable captain managed to reach Dutch Timor in a rowboat and in 1792 returned to Tahiti with another ship to complete his task.

The breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), a tall tree with broad green leaves, provides shade as well as food. A well-watered tree can produce as many as 1,000 pale green breadfruits a year. Robert Lee Eskridge described a breadfruit thus: “Its outer rind or skin, very hard, is covered with a golf-ball-like surface of small irregular pits or tiny hollows. An inner rind about a half-inch thick surrounds the fruit itself, which when baked tastes not unlike a doughy potato. Perhaps fresh bread, rolled up until it becomes a semi firm mass, best describes the breadfruit when cooked.”

The starchy, easily digested fruit is rich in vitamin B. When consumed with a protein such as fish or meat it serves as an energy food. The Polynesians learned to preserve breadfruit by pounding it into a paste, which was kept in leaf-lined pits to ferment into mahi. Like the coconut, the breadfruit tree itself had many uses, including the provision of wood for outrigger canoes.

(Text excerpted from page 184 of the seventh edition of Moon Tahiti, published by Avalon Travel of Berkeley, California. Reproduction prohibited.)