Breadfruit: Rediscovering the tropical fruit

Breadfruit, a staple food of the tropics
Breadfruit, a staple food of the tropics 03:39

In the Hawaiian town of Hana on the island of Maui, bread grows on trees, in a manner of speaking. This is what's known as breadfruit. Typically green and scaly on the outside, white and smooth like squash on the inside, it's a starchy member of the fig family that's similar in taste to a potato, and smells like fresh baked bread when cooked.

But outside of Hawaii, you're not likely to come across it in most American grocery stores.

"Breadfruit is a tropical tree. It's something that you won't find on the mainland United States, unfortunately. But it's a very important starch to those of the Pacific," said Mike Opgenorth, the director of Kahanu Garden, home to the largest collection of breadfruit trees in the world – 150 varieties.

Breadfruit is low in fat, high in complex carbs, contains all essential amino acids, and is gluten-free. CBS News

Believe it or not, none of those trees is native to Hawaii. Just like bananas, coconuts and sugar cane, breadfruit is what's known as a "canoe plant," first brought to Hawaii centuries ago by Polynesian explorers.

"Hawaiian culture, Tahitian culture, Samoan – we are all connected, not only through the Pacific, but through ulu," said Ipo Mailou. Ulu is the Hawaiian word for breadfruit. Mailou grew up in Hawaii eating it.

Correspondent Conor Knighton first encountered breadfruit three years ago while reporting in American Samoa.

Conor Knighton peels breadfruit in American Samoa. CBS News

Breadfruit's reach expanded in the 1700s, when Europeans took the tree from Tahiti to their Caribbean colonies. You may recall the infamous 1789 mutiny on the HMS Bounty from history class, or from films, like the 1962 version starring Marlon Brando. But folks often forget the entire reason the Bounty sailed from England in the first place was all about the breadfruit. The British were looking for a cheap food to support their growing slave trade.

Diane Ragone is the director of Hawaii's Breadfruit Institute. Over the past few decades, she's traveled around the world on her own breadfruit collecting expeditions. Ragone has analyzed the varieties and has been working to propagate the most nutrient-rich, fastest-growing ones in places they could do the most good today. "The ma'afala, from Samoa, is the first variety that we've been distributing around the world," she said.

"There are about a billion hungry people on this planet, 80% of whom live in the Tropics," Ragone said. "And breadfruit grows in many of those tropical areas."

Worldwide, breadfruit still isn't all that popular. It's big in Barbados, and has inspired a hit song in Jamaica. 

Chi Ching Ching performs "Roast or Fry (Breadfruit)":

Chi Ching Ching - Roast or Fry (Breadfruit) by CHICHINGCHINGVEVO on YouTube

But Ragone thinks the fruit never reached its full potential. That may be changing.

Knighton asked, "Does it feel like a rediscovery of breadfruit?"

"It's a rediscovery. And for a lot of people it's a revelation, 'cause they knew nothing about breadfruit," she replied.

Breadfruit is low in fat, high in complex carbs, contains all essential amino acids, and is gluten-free. As it turns out, there's a lot more you can do with it than just roast or fry. At an "Ulu Cookoff" in Hawaii, chefs have created everything from sweet breadfruit custards to savory breadfruit-based tacos and stews.

Today, Hawaiian businesses sell breadfruit pizza, breadfruit bagels, even breadfruit vodka. 

Sourdough ulu bagels - a touch of the Upper West Side in Hawai'i. CBS News

Ragone said, "The fruit can be used for home consumption, but then also sold to provide economic development and opportunity."

Panawest, a company in Puerto Rico (where breadfruit is known as "Pana") sells breadfruit French fries. In Indonesia, they sell breadfruit chips. For islands so reliant on imports, breadfruit is a locally-grown food source that could potentially be a lucrative export.

Mike Opgenorth said, "Breadfruit is part of our future, not just part of our past."

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