CAPTAIN COOK, Hawaii — The breadfruit is a remarkable food: The prickly football-size pod is full of nutrients and energy. Growing on one of the earth’s highest-yielding trees, it could even help alleviate world hunger, backers believe.
There’s just one problem: It tastes remarkably bland.
“Like undercooked potatoes,” says Diane Ragone, a Kauai horticulturalist.
“You have to kind of fool people to get them to try it,” says Jacqueline Lau, corporate chef for Roy’s Restaurant chain’s Hawaii restaurants.
It’s time the world learned to eat it anyway, says Ms. Ragone. After hopping around 51 Pacific islands to find different breadfruit types, she has assembled more than 120 varieties in a large grove at a National Tropical Botanical Garden site on Maui.
Ms. Ragone and Ms. Lau are part of a movement among breadfruit fans here to teach people to like the tasteless stuff. They have started in Hawaii by pitching it to cooks — professional and domestic — and plan outreach campaigns for the fruit.
Ms. Ragone suggests sauteing breadfruit slices in butter until golden brown, then sprinkling cheese to make breadfruit nachos.
“Think of sauteed breadfruit as a platform for any kind of cuisine or flavor,” she says.
The breadfruit’s proponents say it has unique qualities that could help feed the world’s poor. One tree, a member of the fig family, can produce 450 pounds of fruit per season. The fruit packs 121 calories in a half-cup serving and is rich in fiber, potassium, phosphorous, calcium, copper and other nutrients. Its texture and yeasty odor remind some people of fresh bread.
“I feel it’s the food of the future,” says Olelo pa’a Faith Ogawa, a Hawaii-born private chef. “If I were to speak to the breadfruit spirit, it would tell me: ‘Grow me! Eat me!’ It can feed villages!”
Breadfruit has long been a staple in Pacific islands, from where it spread to the Caribbean and Africa.
“It’s something we all grew up with — a comfort food,” says Pamela Young, weekend anchor and food editor of KITV, the ABC station in Honolulu. “You steam it and add butter and salt.”
But persuading neophytes to eat it has never been easy. The fruit is extremely starchy, hence, bland. It can have a mealy texture and tends to spoil quickly, turning into a gooey mush.
Britain’s Royal Society dispatched Capt. William Bligh to Tahiti in 1787 to collect breadfruit specimens to help feed colonies in the West Indies. After Capt. Bligh’s Bounty crew mutinied, they tossed overboard the hundreds of breadfruit plants he had collected. Capt. Bligh finally delivered breadfruit trees to the Caribbean, but it took almost five decades for locals to develop a taste for it, according to some accounts of his mission.
Epicurious, a recipe website, doesn’t have an entry for breadfruit. Arnold Hiura, author of the 2010 book, “Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands,” mentions it only as a “canoe plant” that Polynesian settlers brought in outriggers to Hawaii. “It’s one of those forgotten foods,” he says.
Even some Hawaii residents are hard to convince. “You know, it’s fattening and it doesn’t even taste that good,” says Michelle Sewell, who has breadfruit trees outside her home on Maui island but never eats the fruit.
Ms. Ragone, the horticulturalist, hadn’t heard of breadfruit until she moved to Kauai in 1979 as a gardener. “The first time I ate it, I didn’t really like it,” she says. “It was really bland.”
She acquired a taste while doing research in Western Samoa in 1985. The 57-year-old Ms. Ragone, now director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute on Kauai Island, has spent two decades gathering breadfruit specimens and planting them on the island of Maui.
Now, she and other breadfruit believers are ready to teach people that breadfruit can be appetizing, starting in Hawaii. They got help from eBay Inc. founder Pierre Omidyar, a Hawaiian resident, and his wife, Pam, who funded a meeting last year to assemble 25 breadfruit experts to create a plan to encourage people to eat and grow more breadfruit.
The result was a breadfruit initiative that has enlisted chefs and restaurants to pitch the fruit and has sent advocates to local schools to get young people interested in eating breadfruit.
Robin Campaniano, general partner of Ulupono Initiative, the Omidyars’ investment fund and philanthropic organization, says ‘ulu, as breadfruit is called in Hawaiian, could cut down Hawaii’s estimated 90% reliance on food imports. “We look forward to finding out what opportunities might exist, such as creation of a commercial market for breadfruit or development of value-added products such as ‘ulu breads, pancakes or flour,” he said.
As part of the initiative, in September the Breadfruit Institute helped organize an inaugural Breadfruit Festival near the town of Captain Cook, where leading chefs judged a contest to find new ways to boil, mash, steam, roast, pickle and ferment the fruit.
Smoke rose from breadfruit roasting on burning coconut shells. Women mashed the fruit with pestles to make a traditional porridge-like food.
Ms. Lau of Roy’s Restaurants, which has branches in places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, was among the judges. The best recipes, she says, disguised the breadfruit by adding cream, bacon and cheese.
(Roy’s specializes in Hawaiian food but typically doesn’t offer breadfruit on its mainland menus, she says. “People in the U.S. [mainland] are not used to eating breadfruit,” she says.)
Winning entries included ‘Ulu Tamales with Coleslaw & Salsa; an ‘Ulu Tart (two cups cooked breadfruit, one cup fresh coconut milk, Lehua honey, macadamia nut crust); and a breadfruit salad with cucumbers and dill.
Harriet Bower, an 87-year-old tourist from Washington State, hadn’t tried breadfruit before that morning when she tasted a sample. “It didn’t have much taste,” she concluded.
Sonia R. Martinez, a Hawaii-based food writer who helped organize the contest, says that when she was growing up in Cuba, breadfruit was something she never considered eating. “Most people fed it to the pigs,” she says.
Ms. Martinez, a contest judge, paused when asked if she could taste the breadfruit in the tart. “Umm . . . not really” she said. “‘Ulu doesn’t really have a taste.”