Culture is an essential component of tourism and the uru or breadfruit tree is central to authentic Polynesian culinary culture.
If there’s one tree that can readily spring to the attention of those visiting these shores, it will most likely be the uru. This fruit-giving tree is central to the lives of locals and can be found in abundance throughout the islands and especially Bora Bora. Here’s a photo of one in my neighbour’s garden:
Legend holds that during a terrible famine in Raiatea, a family of six went to live in a cave while 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 with 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, it can give fruit from 3 to 7 years after planting.
Trees are harvested several times a year, producing for around 50 years and regularly giving over 100-200 fruit per year, depending on the variety. Breadfruit trees, with their large multi-pointed leaves can grow to a height of over 25m.
The fruit can weigh up to 5kls and turns from green to a brownish yellow secreting a sticky white substance when ready to pick.
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 Caribbean.
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.
The uru can be prepared in a myriad of ways from 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, and even flour for gluten-free bread & crepes. Certain uru can be used for jam, others are fermented before eating, and others are even used for making chewing gum.
The best way, however, to eat uru is to eat it as the Tahitians do. By cooking it 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 and eaten warm. You can see Tahitians everywhere eating uru with hot canned corned-beef (punu puaatoro,which amusingly translates literally as ‘cow in a can’) and onions.
Uru tastes like bread and potatoes. Tahitains love to eat it ripe, for this is when the starch is turning to sugar and gives it a sweeter taste. Grab a piece, dip it in coconut milk just as the Tahitians do, and you’ll love it!
Another favorite is to remove the seed and pound the fruit to a mash before wrapping it in banana leaves and cooking in an open fire. It adds a great taste as the banana flavor permeates the breadfruit.
A major advantage of uru is the ability to produce gluten-free bread and the flour of breadfruit. You can even enjoy it with breadfruit ‘butter’, a paste made from the same fruit.
The tree itself was used in ancient times for the construction of canoes as its lightweight wood is resistant to termites & marine worms. 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.
Try it out next time when you see locals preparing it on an open fire.