It looks a bit alien, like a green coconut with goosebumps, and it sounds like an exotic hybrid---is it produce, or a baked good?---but breadfruit is really rather ordinary in many parts of the world.
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"Sure, I know what breadfruit is! It grows everywhere in Puerto Rico, where I grew up, and its so good," says Carmen Eyzaguirre, a Smithsonian librarian in Washington, DC. "It tastes like something between a potato and a plantain."
According to The Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii, breadfruit (artocarpus altilis) grows in almost 90 countries, mostly in the Pacific Islands, southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Central America.
There are hundreds of varieties, but the most ubiquitous are the types propagated by colonial powers as a source of food for slaves in places like the West Indies.
A member of the mulberry family, breadfruit grows on trees that mature quickly and fruit abundantly for many years, which could make it valuable in the fight against world hunger.
"I really think it has a lot of potential to help people, especially in the tropics, where 80 percent of the world's hungry live," says Diane Ragone, founder of The Breadfruit Institute. "It's low-labor and low-input; much easier to grow than things like rice and corn. And because it's a tree, the environmental benefits are huge compared to a field crop."
Ragone became fascinated by breadfruit as a botany graduate student in the mid-1980s, and started collecting samples worldwide. By 2002, her collection formed the basis for founding the institute, a non-profit group that aims to research and conserve breadfruit species as well as promoting the crop's practical uses for food and reforestation.
In Hawaii, where the institute is based, breadfruit is called ulu, and the traditional cooking method is to place a whole fruit directly in a fire.
"The skin blackens and the flesh gets almost doughy inside, which is why they call it breadfruit. The smell is fabulous, and the taste is really unique," Ragone explains. "A lot of people say breadfruit is bland, but I think that depends on the variety. And as one chef I talked to here said, 'It's the perfect canvas for a culinary artist.' You can do anything with it!"
If you're lucky enough to get your hands on a fresh breadfruit, here are some recipes to try, courtesy of The Breadfruit Institute.