About a month ago, one of our editors asked me if I could write a brief web piece on cooking with breadfruit, to accompany an upcoming piece about Jamaica in the magazine's travel issue (now online).
"Sure," I said, after a little Googling to determine what the heck a breadfruit is. They grow on a tree in the mulberry family, and have edible white flesh that's soft and slightly sweet when fully ripe, or starchy and potato-like when under-ripe.
Breadfruit only grows in tropical climates, which D.C. is not (although it can certainly feel like one in August), but I figured I could find one at an ethnic foods market or maybe even the normal grocery store. I mean, we have easy access to other tropical fruits like mangoes, coconuts, plantains and papayas—how hard could it be?
Answer: Pretty darn hard.
I started at the chain supermarkets in my neighborhood, then expanded my search to Whole Foods and organic markets. No luck.
I thought I had hit a lucky break when a nice woman who heard I was looking for breadfruit told me her sister in Puerto Rico could supply it.
"I'll ask her to send me a box tomorrow; she does it all the time and it usually only takes a day or two," the woman promised me. (I'll keep her nameless, since I'm not too sure it's legal to import fruit that way.)
I called her a few days later. Any breadfruit?
"No, not yet. Maybe tomorrow," she said.
Same answer the next day, and the next day, and the next...as far as know, that's still the answer, though I've stopped pestering the poor woman.
In the meantime, I called up any ethnic foods markets I could find phone numbers for in the greater D.C. area. Most conversations went something like this:
Me: "I'm looking for something called a breadfruit...do you sell breadfruit?"
Me (mangling the pronunciation of a list of alternate names for breadfruit): "Panna fruta? Fruta pao? Pan de palo? Ulu? Suku? Fruta de pan?"
Store person: "You want fruit or bread?"
And so it went. My hopes soared temporarily when I called one little market. Someone put me on hold and went hunting through the store for something matching what I described. When she came back to the phone empty-handed, she asked me to describe it again, then stopped me mid-sentence.
"Oh, is it something fresh?" she asked. "We don't sell anything fresh."
I restrained myself from suggesting that they should make that their store's new slogan, and dialed one more place, a large international supermarket that a friend had recommended. It wasn't close by, but I was a day away from deadline, and still had no breadfruit to cook with.
After two comically mangled conversations with cashiers, and far too many minutes (at least two) on hold with Vanilla Ice music, I finally reached a guy in the store's produce department. As I recited the list of breadfruit's foreign names, one of them hit the mark.
"Fruta de pan! Yes, yes, fruta de pan!" he exclaimed. "Yes, I know it!"
"That's great!" I said. "So, you have it there?"
"No. Not now," he said.
I was afraid to ask, but I did...when did he expect to have it?
"Tomorrow," he said. "Maybe tomorrow."
In the end, I interviewed a leading authority on breadfruit, Diane Ragone of The Breadfruit Institute, which is part of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hawaii. Here's the article that resulted, with recipes that make my mouth water. I can make one... maybe tomorrow.