This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Fruit That Could Save the World, first released on March 28, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CAPTAIN BLIGH: King George wants his people to be as strong as your people. He wants your breadfruit to nourish them.
BOTANIST: Artocarpus incisa. Isn’t it amazing? Such a delicate sprig with the power to feed a continent. You know, there’s evidence to prove that a diet of breadfruit can sustain life all by itself.
CYNTHIA GRABER: That last voice—that’s an actor playing a real-life botanist who once set sail on the good ship Bounty. Before everything went to hell in a handbasket, the Bounty, the real life ship of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, it was heading out to sea to get hold of this life-sustaining tree.
NICOLA TWILLEY: So, last episode, as you may recall, we were in Hawai’i, and we liked it so much we decided to stay. At least for another episode. We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and this episode we’re going to get to know one of the other canoe crops, one of the other foods that Polynesians brought to Hawai’i and that helped feed native Hawaiians for hundreds and hundreds of years.
TWILLEY: But this one is a crop that also has a dark history elsewhere in the world, as well as a starring role alongside the coconut in the Mutiny on the Bounty. We’re talking about the breadfruit, which is a fruit, but is also sort of bread-like. But also can be a pudding.
GRABER: All that coming up, plus how breadfruit could be the tree that really might save the world. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
GRABER: Mike Opgenorth is the director of the Kahanu Botanical Garden, it’s at the southern tip of Maui, and it’s the most lush and tropical spot on the island.
OPGENORTH: We’re in the heart of the Breadfruit collection here at Kahanu Garden. One hundred and fifty varieties, over 300 trees, from throughout the Pacific over 30 islands consists of, of what it took to put this collection together.
TWILLEY: Before we went to Hawai’i, I had never seen a breadfruit tree. But once you’ve seen one, you’ll see why experts like Diane Ragone call it an extremely handsome tree. Diane is basically the world’s number one breadfruit expert, she’s director Emeritus of the Breadfruit Institute at the botanical garden.
DIANE RAGONE: They have a, a grayish trunk, a large trunk, and many, many branches. And dark green, just very beautiful leaves that have a lot of deep lobing, kind of like an oak, some of the oak leaves, but much deeper and much larger.
GRABER: Everything about the breadfruit tree is large.
OPGENORTH: So some of these trees are so tall that we can’t get a picker to them, and when the fruits fall and they hit the ground, you can hear it from like a hundred feet away.
GRABER: The tree can grow up to about 80 feet tall, which is around the height of two telephone poles atop one another, although the trees can be pruned to be smaller. The trunks are really wide. And even the flower is big and long and kind of brownish.
OPGENORTH: The male flower of breadfruit is a very um suggestive, form, and it’s actually the Hawaiian name for the male flowers, ule, which also means, you know, the male reproductive parts, right?
TWILLEY: To me it looked more like a long skinny sweet potato—I guess for once my mind is not in the gutter.
GRABER: So the trees and the leaves and the flowers are all huge, and so of course, is the fruit.
RAGONE: The fruits are round or oval and they can be, gosh, up to the size of maybe a softball even up to the size of, um, a volleyball. When, and, and with a little pebbly or bumpy green surface.
TWILLEY: These fruit are really weird looking honestly—they’re these big green dimpled skinned round balls hanging off the branch like some kind of dinosaur Christmas ornaments.
GRABER: But of course the trees aren’t just ornamental.
RAGONE: It produces an abundance of very nutritious fruit that is a fruit when it’s soft and sweet. And also when it’s starchy, it’s like an annual field crop and it can then be used as any kind of starchy staple like rice or potatoes.
TWILLEY: In Hawai’i, breadfruit is called ‘ulu. And globally, it’s really the only starchy staple food that grows on a tree.
SCOTT FISHER: Which makes ‘ulu somewhat unique. It is probably, in terms of taste, consistency, probably most analogous to a potato. It’s, in fact, you can almost think of it as, and, and this is, you know, I’m oversimplifying things, but you can almost think of it as a potato on a tree.
GRABER: If you listened to our most recent episode about taro, you might recognize Scott’s voice, Scott Fisher is not only the director of Aina Stewardship with Hawai’i Land Trust, he’s also recently become a breadfruit farmer.
TWILLEY: He told us that breadfruit has a lot of charms for a newbie farmer.
FISHER: They’re, they’re very durable species. They’re, they’re a great crop for beginning farmers.
GRABER: Because once you get the tree started and you protect it from deer and other animals as it’s starting to get big, and maybe you do some pruning, other than that, it’s really not all that labor intensive. If you were to farm corn or rice or wheat, you basically have to plant every year, you’re worried about weeding and fertilizing and all the stuff you have to do year after year to grow each new crop.
OPGENORTH: If you think about having a life that isn’t spent tilling and replanting every single year, breadfruit frees up a lot of your time. Because if you put it in a good environment, it’ll grow great for 50, 100 years. And you just enjoy the fruit and prune the trees.
RAGONE: There are trees that I have been shown that were well in, well into their eighth decade and they were still productive.
TWILLEY: And when Diane says productive, she really means it—breadfruit trees can produce 600 or more fruit each year.
RAGONE: We did one study, of a ma’afala variety. And 50 breadfruit trees on a hectare were as productive as rice and more productive than corn
GRABER: And these are two super industrialized, bred to be super highly productive crops!
FISHER: So, on average. You know, if you look across, the archipelago, you find that the average tree produces about 300 pounds, annually. And so it, it’s a, it’s a great crop.
GRABER: Diane said breadfruit is mostly found in the Pacific Islands, and that’s because this is the region where it was born.
RAGONE: Breadfruit originated in the Western Pacific, Papua New Guinea, and had been distributed across the region for close to 5,000 years. And from island to island as people settled and colonized and lived on new islands. They brought up crops with them in their canoes. They brought crops and plants and food like pigs
TWILLEY: Crops like taro and coconut, and, of course, breadfruit. And over time, as humans always do, these early people developed different varieties of breadfruit—ones that grew better in different conditions or were more or less starchy or ripened earlier.
RAGONE: One of my favorite names for a breadfruit variety, is the crying baby breadfruit. Because it, you could cook it so quickly and feed it to a baby who’s crying.
GRABER: Diane’s been on a mission since the 1980s to collect and save all the breadfruit varieties. For more than three decades she’s traveled around the Pacific, from island to island, to build her collection. These are planted in a few different botanical gardens in the region, and the one with the most varieties in the world was right where we were standing in Maui.
RAGONE: I collected and documented, personally, well over 500 breadfruit trees. And of that maybe three or 400 varieties. And we have varieties in the collection that are rare and at risk, some of them may be gone in their home islands. When I collected one particular tree variety from the Cook Islands, my um, agricultural agent that I was working with told me that they knew, they only knew of one tree left on that island of that variety. That was 1985.
TWILLEY: A lot of Pacific islands, like Tahiti, were once home to dozens of varieties. Weirdly, though, Hawai’i has only had one. The Hawaiian archipelago was pretty much the last islands to be settled by Polynesians with their canoe crops. And for whatever reason, they only brought one type of breadfruit with them.
OPGENORTH: Thinking about the exploration, of Polynesians throughout the Pacific, Hawai’i was one of the last frontiers, right? And so with that, as you take your favorite variety to the next island, Hawai’i was at the very end. It’s really the like, quintessential breadfruit.
GRABER: But even though that variety might have been the favorite breadfruit, breadfruit wasn’t really the Hawaiians’ favorite food. As you might remember, that number one position went to taro.
FISHER: It went kalo, sweet potato—uala—and then breadfruit was kind of a third. But I think it was one of those, it was oftentimes grown as one of those… I wouldn’t say a famine food, but as sort of a backup in case another crop failed. But it was consumed a lot as well.
FISHER: I mean, I don’t mean to, make it sound like in Hawai’i, it wasn’t consumed quite a bit. It was.
TWILLEY: Basically, breadfruit wasn’t king of the dinner table for early Hawaiians, but it did have their backs when things went wrong.
FISHER: The, the, the thing I love most, the, probably the mythology associated with ‘ulu, that’s probably the most telling is that, there was a famine that struck the Hawaiian Islands. There was a drought and a famine that struck Hawai’i. And, this is, you know, during the mythological times, the god Kū was living with his family and noticed that the family was on the verge of starvation. And what he did is he, he basically buried himself in the ground. And from that spot where he buried himself in the ground, the ‘ulu tree grew up. And so the ‘ulu tree is sort of, you, you can think of it as sort of the salvation. It was what saved his family at that time of dire need, from starving to death.
GRABER: And that idea that breadfruit can be salvation, that it can protect you from hunger, in Hawai’i the relationship would traditionally start when you were a baby.
FISHER: One common practice was when your child was born, you would plant an ‘ulu. And so you can again, get that idea of like, it, it’s meant to be, identified with an individual, but that’s a protector.
TWILLEY: Part of why it was a protector is because of that abundance we talked about. Which also gave breadfruit a reputation as something that was often fed to animals, rather than humans.
GRABER: In Hawai’i, breadfruit is harvested in the fall, and there’s a lot of it all at once. People did eat it, but they couldn’t eat it all, and breadfruit doesn’t store well.
RAGONE: Excess breadfruit breadfruit that couldn’t be used for other purposes throughout the Pacific is always fed to the pigs. And it’s not a, a lessening of the value of breadfruit. It’s actually an enhancement of the value because all the production of the tree is used. Nothing goes to waste. And when you convert your starch into protein and fat, it’s so essential. So pig- feeding breadfruit to pigs was a way to have a very portable, very nutritious source of protein and fat.
GRABER: We’re making it sound like breadfruit was something grown kind of on the side, like families had their own breadfruit trees that they planted when their babies were born. But Hawaiians did also grow it on a large scale, particularly on the island of Hawai’i, which is also called the big island, the area was known as the breadfruit belt.
NOA KEKUEWA LINCOLN: It’s a very narrow band, so only about a half mile wide on the landscape, but stretched for 18 miles long. You know, kind of encircling around the, the slopes of Moana Loa.
TWILLEY: This is Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, you will have heard him on our taro episode too. He’s a researcher at the University of Hawai’i where he focuses on indigenous crops and farming techniques. And he told us that this breadfruit belt was known as Kalu ‘Ulu, and it was planted to take advantage of the precise conditions at this particular elevation where other crops were sort of dicey, but breadfruit did really well.
LINCOLN: And, in this area, it’s kind of dry, but on a good year it’s pretty wet. But then on a bad year, it’s really dry. So if you were growing annual crops in that area, like kalo or sweet potato or even yams or bananas, what happens is on that bad year when you have a drought year, all these annual crops would die. But by having a long lived tree, once you get it established, they can thrive during the wet years. And then even in a bad year, even in a drought year, the tree persists and it still produces some fruit, still contributes to your overall, food system and food security.
GRABER: This was good food all the time, but it was also like a food bank if your other crops happened to fail. Noa modeled what those old systems might have looked like – he and his colleagues collected information about rainfall and how the whole system would have worked and yield… And they found that this breadfruit belt alone would have produced about 50,000 tons annually. I can’t picture exactly how much breadfruit that is, but I know it is a lot.
LINCOLN: Which if you convert it to a pure caloric value—just the breadfruit alone would’ve been enough to feed about 30,000 people. Which is roughly the population of that area today.
TWILLEY: That’s impressive, but what’s even more impressive is that breadfruit wasn’t the only crop that Hawaiians grew in the breadfruit belt. It was a whole agroforestry system.
LINCOLN: The early European explorers who first saw these systems, were very impressed by them. And so they wrote about them extensively. And then they describe, a whole diversity of crops grown within this breadfruit system. Taking advantage of the kind of micro habitats that the trees produce.
TWILLEY: They used the shade from the breadfruit to grow paper mulberry, and then used the bark of paper mulberry to make cloth for bedding and also ropes, and they also used the shade to grow kava, which was the key ingredient for a ceremonial drink.
LINCOLN: The floor of the system, the ground cover would be a lot of rhizome based crops. So things like the shampoo ginger, turmeric, pia, which is the, Polynesian arrow root, a very starchy like corn starch type of, plant.
GRABER: Agroforestry systems have been developed in lots of places around the world, because they’re truly amazing, and people have been both studying this traditional approach and trying to recreate agroforestry systems today. Think about it, you get trees that produce food and that you don’t have to really take care of much or worry about, and then you can grow all sorts of other useful crops in and around those trees.
OPGENORTH: And one of the really special things too about breadfruit is it provides all of these other ecosystem services. If you think about its ability to attract pollinators, its ability to sequester carbon. Provide shade, building materials. Many other practical uses. The sap is a useful type of sticky, like, almost like a gum. There’s all of these different things that breadfruit offers.
TWILLEY: At this point, you might be thinking, is there nothing breadfruit cannot do? We were kind of thinking that ourselves. In fact, I was thinking, you know, it must not taste that good or it would have already taken over the world.
GRABER: I wondered the same thing, I mean, I’ve traveled to tropical areas before and I’ve never tried it. So is this wonder fruit actually not so wonderful to eat? Time for a taste test. That’s coming up, after the break.
TWILLEY: We’re getting the band back together this episode, so it’s time for another star from our taro episode: chef Sheldon Simeon of Tin Roof and Tiffany’s.
SHELDON SIMEON: That’s… it’s breadfruit season too right now. So it’s, you go to the market and it’s everywhere. I was just eyeing up the one right up the road at the fire department. I was going to go knock on their door and be like, “Hey, guys, let me make you guys some food, if you share your ‘ulu, your breadfruit with us.”
GRABER: Sheldon did not happen to score the firehouse’s breadfruit for our particular day’s offerings, but he did get a big one.
SIMEON: Yeah. So this is a breadfruit that we got at the market this past weekend. I love it. This is my favorite part where it’s at this ripeness. You can kind of feel a little softness in it.
SIMEON: It’s gorgeous. I love it. This is a variety that doesn’t have any seeds. Just some small seeds here, but beautiful flesh. This is a grade-A bread fruit right here.
TWILLEY: Traditionally, Hawaiians would cook their breadfruit in the same stone pit ovens they used for taro. Or sometimes they would even just throw them whole in the embers of a fire to roast. Sheldon cooked them in the oven.
SIMEON: We’re going to do it as the most simplest form. So I roasted the bread fruits whole and then peeled it and then quartered it. Then we’ll top it off with a little bit of coconut oil and some Hawaiian chili pepper.
GRABER: That breadfruit and coconut pairing—turns out that the two aren’t just both canoe crops, they’re also entwined in mythology. Scott told us that the breadfruit was the bodily form of the goddess Hina, and coconut was the bodily form of the god Ku, and the two are a pair. So Sheldon was right on the money.
SIMEON: How’s your guys’ spice?
TWILLEY: We like spice.
SIMEON: Oh, okay. We’ll break up this with some Hawaiian chilies.
SIMEON: Right. So we’ll take this out and then we’ll plate it. And top it off.
[CLINK OF PLATING AND SIZZLE OF FRYING]
SIMEON: With coconut oil…
[SIZZLE OF FRYING]
SIMEON: A little bit of pakai or some sea salt. Finish it off.
TWILLEY: Sheldon had cut the breadfruit into chunks, like wedges, and they were a pretty yellow color, they looked sort of fibrous like pineapple, but then they weren’t like pineapple at all as soon as we dug in.
SIMEON: Cut right into it and have at it.
TWILLEY: Oh, it’s so soft!
TWILLEY: I wasn’t expecting it to be so, like, yeah, it’s so tender to slice through.
SIMEON: Yeah, it’s. I want to see you guys reaction to it.
TWILLEY: Okay. All right. Here we go.
TWILLEY: Mm-hmm. It’s delicious.
GRABER: I love the texture.
GRABER: Nicky and I might have started out a little dubious about how good breadfruit are to eat, but I am here to tell you, from the very first bite, we were in love. It was like a perfect soft slightly nutty and starchy potato, it reminded me of yucca. It was totally delicious.
TWILLEY: The coconut is perfect on it. It’s really good.
SIMEON: Yeah. You could take this and put, slather it with butter and garlic and sour cream and it would be like the best potato baked potato you’ll ever have.
TWILLEY: Yum. Speaking of potatoes, Sheldon wanted to make us something less traditional too, to show us how versatile the breadfruit really is. So he made like a breadfruit version of a German potato salad.
SIMEON: We made a vinaigrette with some shallots and some garlic, and the base is rooted here in Hawai’i. But flavor’s from around the world. We’ll give this a toss.
SIMEON: And we’ve just got some puffed rice that we mixed with some lemon oil and some nori for texture.
GRABER: We headed back to the table for breadfruit take two.
[CLINK OF FOOD BEING SERVED]
SIMEON: Thank you.
GRABER: Mm. Mm hmm.
TWILLEY: Wow, the vinaigrette goes right through.
SIMEON: Yeah, it just absorbs all of that flavor.
GRABER: I’m just going to sit here enjoying. You can just leave me [LAUGHS].
TWILLEY: God this is good. Mmm.
GRABER: It’s so good.
TWILLEY: Like he says, Sheldon grew up eating both taro and breadfruit—taro the traditional way, and breadfruit exactly like a potato.
SIMEON: And it was always a treat when the neighbor’s tree was full with ‘ulu. And my dad, we put a little bit of butter and garlic on top of it and he likes his spicey, so he puts a lot of chili pepper on it too. But, yeah, we love the breadfruit, and we eat a lot of this growing up.
GRABER: We know it’s hard to choose favorites, of course you love them all, but we did ask Sheldon which one would be his pick on a desert island, taro or breadfruit—
SIMEON: If I had to choose between both of them, I’d probably choose breadfruit as my favorite.
SIMEON: I’ve been having so much fun in this past few years, just like cooking with ‘ulu. You know, again, the amount that one tree can feed and the amount of fruit that you can get. And just like changing different people’s ideas of what ‘ulu can be.
TWILLEY: One of the reasons Sheldon loves breadfruit is that it is so versatile. And you can do different things with it at different stages of ripeness, too.
SIMEON: And when it’s nice and still young it’s very firm. So you can slice it on a mandolin and then you get some chips. As they ripen up, it’ll start to get sweeter on you too. The texture will change.
GRABER: Scott told us that at each stage of ripeness, the breadfruit can taste really different.
FISHER: The very young stage you can actually, consume that, that’s edible, but it tastes a lot like an artichoke. It’s comparable to an artichoke. As it gets into those more mature stages, that’s when it tastes more like a, a, a potato.
TWILLEY: Up to this point, breadfruit is 100 percent savory. But then it starts to get a little sweeter.
FISHER: When it’s at its ripe or over ripe stage, meaning it’s very, very soft. You can eat it right off the tree and it tastes a lot like kind of a sour pudding has a banana-esque, flavor. Remotely banana, I guess you’d say. Like, not exactly like a banana, but.
TWILLEY: Scott loves breadfruit, Sheldon loves breadfruit, we’ve fallen completely in love with it, but it does have a dark side. That story coming up after the break.
SAILOR: You selling something, chump?
BOTANIST: I’m not a peddler, I’m a gardener. Assistant botanist at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. You know Kew Gardens, of course.
SAILOR: Kew is outside London.
SAILOR 2: You lost your way, mate.
BOTANIST: Well, I haven’t lost my way if this boat, I beg your pardon, if this ship is the Bounty.
SAILOR: Aye, it’s the Bounty, all right.
GRABER: Yes, we’re not in Hawai’i anymore, the year is now 1787, and we are in England and we’re about to set sail from Portsmouth.
TWILLEY: Well, we’re actually in a movie from 1962—it’s one of many big screen versions of that classic pirate tale, the Mutiny on the Bounty.
GRABER: Remember in our coconut episode, how the theft of a coconut spurred that mutiny? Well, the entire reason the Bounty had set sail in the first place was to collect breadfruit saplings in the Pacific and bring them to the Caribbean.
SAILOR: Breadfruit? You mean, where we’re going, bread grows on trees?
SAILOR 2: Bread trees. That’s daft enough for a shipload, eh?
BOTANIST: There’s nothing daft about breadfruit. It is a very real food. A staple, like wheat. Here.
SAILOR: Goofy-looking wheat.
SAILOR 2: It’s funny that nobody’s ever heard of this before, then.
BOTANIST: No one ever heard of the potato until Sir Francis Drake brought it from South America. It altered European economy. Breadfruit may alter it again.
SAILOR: I wonder what it tastes like.
BOTANIST: The West Indies Company plans to feed it to the slaves in Jamaica no matter what it tastes like. But then, if it becomes popular, they’ll feed it to the world.
TWILLEY: What had happened is that when Captain Cook went to Tahiti, he brought the famous naturalist Joseph Banks with him, and Banks collected a bunch of plants along the way. But he had a favorite.
RAGONE: He was absolutely enamored with breadfruit. And it, and also became enamored with its potential for the British slave colonies in the Caribbean. And so he was behind the efforts to introduce Tahitian Breadfruit to the Caribbean Islands. And that from and convinced George III to do that.
TWILLEY: And that is how William Bligh and a lucky botanist from Kew Gardens ended up on the docks at Portsmouth, ready to set sail on the good ship Bounty headed for the Pacific.
GRABER: The Mutiny on the Bounty is so widely known in pop culture that to be honest I didn’t even realize that it was based on a true story. But it turns out there was a Bounty, and there was a mutiny. Bligh was apparently a pretty nasty captain, and when one sailor was accused of stealing a coconut, he cut everyone’s rum and food rations. And then according to the story he took some of their drinking water to keep the precious breadfruit alive.
SAILOR MILLS: It’s the privilege of every captain to decide when an emergency warrants the reduction of water rations. Who can deny there was an emergency? The Bounty carried breadfruit. Vital to the economic life of the British Empire.
FLETCHER CHRISTIAN: Do you suppose it’ll be acceptable that Bligh should return after a two-year voyage with his ship laden with dead plants?
MILLS: Better than with dead men, sir.
CHRISTIAN: You’re forgetting the traditional answer, Mills. Mission comes first and lives of men second.
TWILLEY: So not everyone on board felt that way, and long story short, the breadfruit trees were all thrown overboard along with Mister Unpopular, Captain Bligh.
RAGONE: Well, if that’s the case, then how on earth is the breadfruit in the Caribbean? And that’s because Captain Bligh went back. With a two ships and collected breadfruit varieties and intro- successfully introduced them into the Caribbean. And to St. Vincent and then to Jamaica. And from those first introductions and a couple that the French made at about the same time, breadfruit has been in the Caribbean. And slowly adopted and tied together with the whole, the whole culture and horror of slavery.
FISHER: And that’s a real tragic history because it’s taking something that is culturally so valuable to the people of Oceania and just desecrating in the use of that as a food for slaves.
TWILLEY: Obviously, not everyone in the Caribbean was a huge fan of breadfruit when it was first introduced. By the time it did catch on, forty or fifty years after Captain Bligh introduced it, slavery had thankfully been banned in the British Empire.
GRABER: Given the dark history, breadfruit isn’t popular today everywhere in the Caribbean, but it is definitely a staple on some islands.
TWILLEY: That’s Jamaican musician ChiChing on the subject of breadfruit. He seems like a fan. Apparently, in Jamaica breadfruit is seen as a symbol of perseverance, which seems appropriate.
GRABER: There’s plenty of breadfruit growing in Jamaica, and in fact today there’s more breadfruit growing in the Caribbean than in Hawaii—because it basically died out in Hawai’i. By the 1920s there was no more breadfruit commercially cultivated there. Remember the breadfruit belt on the big island? That was all ripped out.
LINCOLN: They just converted the, the plants, you know, to from ‘ulu, from breadfruit to, coffee. And so essentially what was that Breadfruit belt two centuries ago is now the Kona coffee belt. So a big shift in terms of the role that those lands play from one of, you know, feeding our local population and providing abundance and calories to our people, to one of kind of exporting a commodity crop for economic benefit.
TWILLEY: This is part of the whole shift we talked about in our taro episode. Once Europeans arrived in Hawai’i, they took the land and water and used it for plantation crops, not the traditional foods that had made the islands self-sufficient.
GRABER: Like coffee, those plantations’ crops were mostly sent off the islands. Which means that today Hawai’i relies on everywhere else but Hawai’i for nearly all of its food. Nearly 95 percent of all the food eaten in Hawai’i comes from elsewhere.
OPGENORTH: So one thing that we realized as Covid swept through our communities was how few days we have until the shelves are empty. If you have a tree like this at breadfruit, you go into your backyard and it’s there for you.
FISHER: Me personally and my partner, Jeff Schaffer. The two of us thought, well, how can we address the issue of our vulnerability to everything from climate change, to just, you know, any number of disruptions.
FISHER: And this is our answer. And you know, we’re, we, we love working the earth. We love being, you know, [SPEAKING HAWAIIAN], is the, is the Oleal Noe’al, which is a Hawaiian proverb. That’s, you know, you turn your hands into the soil and you have—basically you literally, your stomach will be full, you know, you will have abundant food. So. This is our, this is our [PROVERB IN HAWAIIAN]. This is our turning of the hands into the soil.
TWILLEY: In different ways, Scott, Mike, Diane, Noa, and Sheldon are all at the vanguard of this exciting and still pretty new breadfruit resurgence in Hawai’i.
FISHER: I think the way I see that is as, as a facet of what you might think of as the overall Hawaiian renaissance. The rebirth of the Hawaiian language.
FISHER: The desire to actually… restore taro patches. And so ‘ulu I think is a little bit on the tail end. You know, the origin of the Hawaiian renaissance goes back to about 1970. And so, wasn’t really until like the early two thousands, that’s sort of the, the ‘ulu renaissance.
GRABER: As part of that resurgence and renaissance, Noa and his colleagues are working to bring back the breadfruit belt.
LINCOLN: I think one of our big drivers, is to have a working reference so we can see this system of the past and see it in action today and start to have these conversations about do these have a role today? You know, did this, this, something we want for our food system? And also for, I think the, the Hawaiian population to be able to, you know, see firsthand like, Hey, this is. what your ancestors were doing, right? It wasn’t that long ago, that these systems existed.
TWILLEY: At the Breadfruit Institute, Diane has also done a lot to restore the breadfruit to the Hawaiian landscape and Hawaiian consciousness too.
RAGONE: Through workshops, cooking competitions, cookbooks, festivals, and a lot of programs. And also tree distributions. I mean, the Breadfruit Institute distributed 10,000 trees statewide, partnering with over 200 organizations to get trees out into communities.
FISHER: We want to see it in the schools. We want to see, you know, it would be just a wonderful thing to see locally produced crops here on Maui, produced here on Maui, consumed here on Maui.
TWILLEY: Scott may have planted a breadfruit farm, but he still thinks everyone should also grow their own.
FISHER: If something were to ever happen, you know, you want to be resilient and you can rely on, on, on breadfruit. And so if, you know, plant a breadfruit in every person’s yard, but still buy your breadfruit from ‘ulu brothers farm. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: And all these breadfruit fans are also part of a movement to plant breadfruit trees worldwide. Because according to the breadfruit institute, about 80 percent of the hundreds of millions of people in the world who suffer from hunger and malnutrition live in areas perfect for growing breadfruit.
FISHER: I work in Madagascar, on a project doing mangrove restoration, and I’m, I’m going there in a couple months and I’m really hoping that I can get something started. There where we can actually bring, ‘ulu to that part of the world. Because the people we’re working with are already experiencing the, impacts of climate change and the impact of climate change is food vulnerability. And ‘ulu is a way of addressing that.
TWILLEY: These kinds of breadfruit planting projects are currently underway in a bunch of different places that do suffer from that kind of food vulnerability—the Breadfruit Institute and another foundation, Trees that Feed—between them they’ve already planted and given away many thousands of trees.
GRABER: And these trees have already proven to be super important and resilient. There have been efforts to replant breadfruit in the Caribbean in places where it had fallen out of favor. About a thousand trees were planted on Puerto Rico and some had become established before Hurricane Maria hit in 2017—after the hurricane, in some places where it was particularly destructive, some of the only trees that were still standing were breadfruits.
TWILLEY: The breadfruit tree originally evolved in the Pacific, where there are regular typhoons, which means they’re pretty sturdy in a windstorm. And if one does happen to fall, a little baby breadfruit tree is usually already growing to take its place.
GRABER: One economist in Trinidad is so excited about the potential of breadfruit to help people on his home islands of Trinidad and Tobago that he’s already planted thousands of trees, and they’re expected to provide literally millions of pounds of food a year.
TWILLEY: And a recent study out of Northwestern modeled crop yields in our climate changed future and concluded that breadfruit, which is super resilient in droughts, storms and more—it could be vital to food security around the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
GRABER: And in case any of you listeners are concerned, the researchers also point out that most of the breadfruit trees that people grow for food are seedless, and so they aren’t invasive, and remember, they also sequester carbon and they take almost no work. Plus, as we’ve pointed out, they’re incredibly delicious.
TWILLEY: Listen, I’ve tried not to just chug the breadfruit Kool Aid. I tried to be cynical. I doubted that it tasted good and I was totally wrong. Frankly, I know it came in second or even third place in ancient Hawaiians hearts, but breadfruit really is great. And it’s so low maintenance.
GRABER: If you live in the right area of the world, it’s easy to grow. It’s not too hard to harvest. And on top of that, it’s really easy to prepare. Mike literally just sticks it in the instant pot and clicks the rice setting, and then it’s done.
RAGONE: But the really important piece is economic development. Is entrepreneurship, being able to do something with that fruit. To process it in some way. People are now grinding breadfruit into flour, and then making flour into, um, local baked goods.
TWILLEY: For team breadfruit, this tree is not just a way to make sure your family has something nutritious to eat, it’s also a way to earn money—by turning breadfruit into something that has legs.
GRABER: We said already that breadfruit doesn’t last very long, but today people are turning it into products that they can not only store but that they can ship, too. Patagonia is making crackers out of breadfruit flour—they advertise it not only as sustainable but also gluten-free.
TWILLEY: Diane told us that breadfruit flour is such a recent innovation that the FDA only approved it as a standard ingredient a few years ago—but it’s taking off fast.
GRABER: But flour is not the only thing you can do with breadfruit.
FISHER: John Cadman with the Maui Breadfruit company turns ’em into these things called pono pies. And they are, they’re very similar in taste and consistency, to cheesecake.
GRABER: Nicky and I bought a few of these on our last couple of days in Maui, and my favorite was the one flavored with sweet potato. I didn’t expect to love sweet-potato-flavored breadfruit cheesecake-y pudding so much, but I totally did.
TWILLEY: I will confess to eating two in a row. But the real killer app for breadfruit, as with so many foods, is the chip
GRABER: Mike and his colleague Kamo Helekai (KAHmo heleKAY) fried up some thinly sliced breadfruit for us.
GRABER: Really delicious. They’re like, starchier than a potato chip.
TWILLEY: Definitely. Denser as well. Hmm.
GRABER: Not really sweet. Really delicious.
TWILLEY: If you had to compare them to a potato chip, what would you say?
KAMO HELEKAI: Oh, this is way better.
GRABER: They’re more substantive.
TWILLEY: I’m a fan. Yeah. Honestly, and I say that as a committed potato lover.
GRABER: You listeners all know that Nicky and I tend to raise our eyebrows a bit when someone tells us that any one particular food will help save the world. But you know, with breadfruit, we’ve kind of been convinced.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Diane Ragone, Mike Opgenorth, Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, Scott Fisher, and Sheldon Simeon. We have photos and links to their projects and restaurants on our website gastropod dot com.
GRABER: Thanks as always to our amazing producer, Claudia Geib, for all her help this episode. We’ll be back in two weeks with a squeaking new episode, something you can really sink your teeth into.
TWILLEY: ‘Til then!