What Does Breadfruit Actually Taste Like?
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.
"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 potatosomething 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 tostonesjust a little chewy on the inside, and crisp on the outside.
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.
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.
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 pepperno such pepper was to be found anywhere we shopped on American Samoaand 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.