Joe Brown, the original bass player of the Caribbean Tradewinds band, would not eat breadfruit because it was “slave food.” Joe came out of the steelband movement in Trinidad and had been the leader of a Laventille steelband; he could be a very principled guy on certain issues, and he was right about breadfruit.
Although now a part of Caribbean menus, particularly in the northern islands, breadfruit is not native to us. It was brought here in the late 18th century by the British to provide cheap and readily available food for the sugar plantation slaves, and some of the first seedlings came on sailing ships captained by Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty notoriety.
One of the original plants from that first incursion can be still seen today in the Botanical Gardens of St Vincent, but the breadfruit tree is now as much a part of the Caribbean landscapes and cultures as the coconut tree, which is also not endemic to us.
Caribbean people grow up eating breadfruit (so-called because the boiled ripe fruit has somewhat the texture of bread) but it was not historically exactly a favourite with the upper level folks. It was seen a filler item with not much food value. Lately, however the dietician experts, such as the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute, are trumpeting that the stuff is good for us.
Not only is breadfruit a rich source of carbohydrate energy, it also contains significantly high amounts of fibre and it is now generally established that fibre lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the body, while elevating our HDL (good) cholesterol levels, thereby decreasing heart attack risks. Also, research shows that the fibre in breadfruit can control diabetes by reducing the absorption of glucose from the food we eat, and it also works to regulate bowel movements and helps elimination from our intestines.
Breadfruit, we are now being told, is also replete with Vitamin C, phosphorus and iron.
Before I get off the scientific spiel, breadfruit is also a beneficial food because it contains favourable amounts of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids which are essential for body and brain development, and also stimulate skin and hair growth.
Breadfruit shows up in Caribbean menus in a number of ways (boiled as a vegetable; cut up in soups and stews; sliced thin and fried to make breadfruit chips; Jamaicans even make a drink from it) but a regional favourite is roasted breadfruit, particularly popular in Jamaica. In that treatment, the breadfruit is picked just before it’s fully ripe and roasted whole.
The result is wonderful, in both aroma and taste, with all of the nutrients locked in.
The purists will tell you that you can’t beat a breadfruit roasted over a wood fire outdoors, and they may be right, but when that method isn’t convenient, or the neighbours complain about the smoke, a standard electric or gas oven will do the job. Cut off the stem, hollow out a narrow hole at the top with a sharp knife (2 inches deep and an inch wide) and stuff the opening with bacon, or salt beef.
Cut a thin slice off the bottom of the fruit so it will stand upright, and roast it for an hour or so; test with a sharp knife to see if it’s done.
The skin will turn almost black and charred-looking. Let it cool, and the skin is easily pared off. The round white breadfruit you’re left with makes for lovely eating.
Sliced and then fried to a golden brown, it’s a genuine Caribbean favourite especially when it’s teamed with shredded saltfish or tomato choka.
Breadfruit stories abound. One in Trinidad, involves a cuckolded husband who retaliated on his wife’s lover by heaving a whole breadfruit (the big ones weigh several pounds) through his rival’s glass window. Accosted by the police, his unshakeable Trini defence was, “Hear na, officer: de ting just fall off de tree and bounce, oui.”
In Grand Cayman, there is a story involving a former governor, known for his wild driving, who sideswiped a vendor who was on his way to town carrying several breadfruits tied by their stems on his bicycle handle. The enraged vendor stormed into the police station with only the breadfruit stems tied with string as evidence of the loss of merchandise. There is also the classic story involving an American tourist in a taxi who asked the driver how to spell “breadfruit”: the answer was, “We don’t spell it; we eats it.”
They’re not exactly the rage in Guyana – fast food probably pushed them out – but the trees are all over the place with their distinctive and unusually large variegated leaf, with its deep green colour. In case you come across a tree that is fruiting and are tempted to go after one for roasting, be warned: the limbs of the breadfruit tree are notoriously weak and, unlike most trees, they will break with absolutely no warning.
Often the fruit is high up the tree, so to end up with an undamaged one you will need a long stick and a friend who can catch – not Darren Sammy.
If you do happen to acquire a good one, however, and you roast it to perfection, but don’t care for the taste, give it to the first Jamaican you encounter – he will be your friend for life.