The Uru or Breadfruit Tree – Polynesian Culinary Culture

Culture is an essential component of tourism; the uru or breadfruit tree central to authentic Polynesian culinary culture.

If there’s one tree that will readily spring to the attention of those visiting these shores it will most likely be the uru. An impressive tree giving a fruit so central to the lives of locals the tree is found in abundance throughout the islands. Here’s a photo of one in my neighbours garden:

Breadfruit or Uru

Legend holds that during a terrible famine in Raiatea a family of six went to live in a cave eating wild ferns that grew in the valley. The father was so filled with pity for his starving family that he told his wife that he intended to bury himself outside the cave to become a tree that would nourish his family. One morning his wife awoke to find her husband missing, his body transformed into a tree bearing breadfruit. The valley where this occurred is still known as Tua-uru to this day.

Breadfruit trees of which there are some 89 (of 120) varieties in French Polynesia originate from Asia; Tahitians continue to amaze tourists by their ability to distinguish between varieties. Breadfruit came to the islands along with rice but growing conditions were such that the Tahitians opted for the uru. Depending on the variety the uru will give fruit from 3 to 7 years after planting. Trees are harvested several times a year, producing for around 50 years & regularly giving over 100-200 fruit per year depending on variety. Breadfruit trees with their large multi-pointed leaves can grow to a height of over 25m. The fruit can weigh up to 5kls & turns from green to a brownish yellow secreting a sticky white substance when ready to pick.

Breadfruit or Uru

So impressed was Captain Cook with the uru that he found growing so abundantly in Tahiti that he wrote in his journals that if a Tahitian were to plant 10 uru in his lifetime he would do a service not only to his own generation but to generations to come. When Cook returned to England his praise of the uru was so strong that sugarcane plantation owners from the West Indies, eager to provide low cost food for slaves, persuaded King George III to send William Bligh to Tahiti to collect cuttings. The uru subsequently became famous in the “Mutiny on the Bounty” where Captain Bligh’s mutinous crew threw the breadfruit cuttings into the ocean before setting Bligh & his officers adrift in a longboat. Bligh would later return to Tahiti & transport 2,126 uru plants to the Carribbean.

The interest in the culinary opportunities afforded by the uru has gripped Tahiti with renowned chefs from France sharing their insights with future polynesian chefs:

Breadfruit culinary preparations

The uru can be prepared in a myriad of ways – fried or steamed, baked, roasted or boiled. It can be mashed into puree or cut up for salads, used for stews or soups, made into chips or gratins, even flour for gluten-free bread & crepes. Certain uru can be used for jam, others are fermented before eating & others still used for making chewing gum!

The best way, however, to eat uru is to eat it as the Tahitians do – cooked in a himaa (underground oven) or atop a flame to give a fruit whose skin has turned completely black overall. The skin is then removed, the uru dipped, well saturated in fresh or fermented coconut milk & eaten warm. You will see Tahitians everywhere eating uru with hot canned corned-beef (punu puaatoro,which amusingly translates literally as ‘cow in a can’) & onions:

uru

Uru tastes like bread, like a potatoe & Tahitains love to eat it ripe for this is when the starch is turning to sugar giving a sweeter taste. Grab a piece, dip it in coconut milk just as the Tahitians do, you’ll love it!  Another favourite is to remove the seed, pound the fruit to a mash before wrapping it in banana leaves & cooking in an open fire; a great taste as the banana flavour permiates the breadfruit.

A major advantage of uru is the ability to produce gluten free bread the flour of the breadfruit. You can even enjoy it with breadfruit ‘butter’, a paste made from the same fruit:

Gluten free breadfruit bread & 'butter'.

The tree itself was used in ancient times for the construction of canoes; its lightweight wood is resistant to termites & marine worm. The tree’s latex was used to ensure the canoe remained watertight. The uru has also been used to make tapa clothing, hats, handbags, lampshades & wall hangings.

The uru is used for medicinal purposes in the treatment of sprains, eye sties, ear infections, coughs, bronchitis & asthma, certain throat infections, blood in one’s urine, & to relieve maternal discomfort after child-birth. Scientists have discovered that the uru contains compounds that have been found to be more effective in repelling mosquitoes than DEET.

Most recently there are a number of Uru Beer Projects under development world-wide….now you are talking!

As recently as last year the breadfruit was being heralded as the next ‘big thing’ in the fight against world hunger. Around 80% of world hunger is in tropical or sub-tropical zones where breadfruit will grow abundantly. High in energy (carbohydrates), low in fat & with masses of potassium & vitamin C breadfruit is now being planted extensively in these areas – in Haiti, for example, sufficient uru has been recently planted to provide the needs of 1000 orphans daily.

Watch out as a falling uru can damage your car let alone your head if it falls & splatters on you!

Try it out next time when you see locals preparing it on an open fire.

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