Some call it the food of the future, a nutritional giant capable of alleviating hunger in the world’s poorest nations. Others can’t be bothered to pick it in their own backyards. Breadfruit, an ancient starchy fruit that thrives from Asia and Africa to the Caribbean, suffers from a reputation of being just too bland. But last month on a visit to Maui, chef Jamie Kennedy demonstrated that the lowly tropical staple can be transformed into a gastronomical experience. And he proved it by making a simple yet tasty soup. The Toronto-based chef was invited to Maui to prepare an elegant dinner in support of a group of local-food promoters who counter the island’s heavy reliance on imported goods. Working with chefs, farmers and fishermen, Kennedy presented a dazzling menu of fresh-caught kampachi sashimi with mango and tangerine, Onaga clams with sweet potato and slices of crisp pork belly with grilled pineapple.
But the soup was the standout. Kennedy had taken inspiration from a typical French soup of leek and potato, and added island spices of ginger, nutmeg and allspice. Maui chef Peter Merriman, who hosted Kennedy’s feast at his namesake restaurant, called it “exceptional.” For Ian Cole, curator of the 10-year-old Breadfruit Institute and a self-proclaimed preacher of the gospel of this food, the evening was a victory. “Breadfruit is misunderstood,” he said. It’s often picked underripe, he explains, which means it has a green, off-putting taste. Another sticking point, says Merriman executive chef Neil Humphry: “Each variety is different from the next and you never know what you’re working with.” Unlike the scientific and culinary knowledge behind, say, a Yukon gold potato or a russet, there is little research to identify the hundreds of varieties, many of which grow in the wild. The Breadfruit Institute is working to change that. There are more than 200 trees here, representing more than 120 varieties sourced from more than 30 Pacific islands. The Institute’s farm appears on the surface to be a semi-wild tropical fruit plantation. But this is only half the story. The other half, thousands of kilometres away, is something out of a sci-fi flick.
Susan Murch works with the Institute at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, where she and her staff take plant-tissue samples and breed varieties for taste, durability, micronutrients and sustainability. They have transplanted it to nations as far afield as Ghana, Haiti and Liberia. Murch reports that a single cell from a breadfruit tree can develop into a whole plant. “So from a one-centimetre piece, you can get thousands of plants. Cole sees the potential on both local and global scales: “Instead of planting an acre of soybeans or potatoes, you can plant two breadfruit trees and get a comparable amount of food to feed your family.” He says its low glycemic index makes it a good alternative starch in Hawaii. “When we’re talking to people here who are trying to change their diets for reasons of health, we say ‘Look, go back to what your relatives ate and eat breadfruit instead of potatoes or white rice.’ ” A single fruit can satisfy the daily micronutrient requirements of two adult women.
On Maui, word is slow to spread. Slow Food Maui co-founder Charlene Kauhane grew up in Hawaii. “We ate everything else in our yard except breadfruit. Only the Tongans and Samoans came to pick it. We didn’t cook it.” Today, it’s a regular dish at home, baked like squash. “I love it. There’s really nothing else like it,” she says. Murch compares breadfruit’s future to the current global interest in quinoa. “It can be used in all the ways you would use wheat flour, rice or potato,” she says. Right now it’s difficult to find in Canada, but it can be located fresh at some ethnic markets.
Already, recent uses range from a gluten-free flour to a beer made by the Maui Brewing Company. Chef Kennedy found it to be a wonder. Not only did the soup win kudos, but a pop-up frites stand he manned in Maui with his son Micah proved a hotspot. The two served their signature frites using a combination of local taro, potatoes, sweet potato and breadfruit. “Among the starches we used, we all agreed that the breadfruit was the star.”