A piece of taro with butter, some poe leftovers and a bit of uru soaked with mitihue, this is how we like to think about the breadfruit, here, in Polynesia. A tamara’a on a Sunday or at night, snug in your blanket in the middle of the rainy season, this is our kind of Tahitian made madeleine moment. It blackens over embers, it crackles within the glow of the campfire and invites people to gather. Savouring an uru is always a moment of conviviality.
You may have already met it by the market of Papeete, on the side of the road or perched from the top of its branch. If many travelers are willing to come closer, out of curiosity, for us the uru is just like the coconut: we like it but from far away… And we know for sure you better not park under its tree, take it as a Polynesian advice…
Located in most Oceanian islands, the uru can hardly find its roots. Many people tend to say it is of Asian descent: some say it comes from Indonesia, others from New-Guinea. One thing’s for sure, the uru is a big traveler, which was imported in the Pacific area during the several Polynesian migrations, more than 3 500 years ago.
It is in 1595 that it was revealed to the world for the very first time within the notebooks of the navigator Quiros, who stayed in the Marquesas archipelago. Later on, on 1776, it is Forster who transcribed a detailed description of the tree during the famous travels of Captain Cook.
If many of you know the famous novel of James Norman Hall and Charles Nordoff or keep in mind some scenes of its movie adaptations, only a few remember the role our uru played in the History of Great-Britain. Let’s admit it, it was kind of upstaged by Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson…
In 1787, the HMS Bounty, a Royal Navy unit, steers for Polynesia with the Captain Bligh calling the tune. The latter was charged by king George III to collect breadfruit plants in order to bring it back to the West Indies. The whole undertaking consisted in providing English colonies with cheap food for slaves.
On October, 26th 1788, the ship casts anchor in Tahiti and the crew quickly succeeds in collecting a thousand seedlings thanks to the cooperation of local chiefs.
On their way back, officers start arguing namely regarding the decision to ration water in order to save the young plants, and a mutiny breaks out. William Bligh and 18 sailors are put in a rowing boat and eventually reach the island of Java after having roamed for 8 300km.
In 1792, the captain is entrusted with a new mission and manages to embark 2 126 plants of uru which he brings to Jamaica, St Vincent and St Helene. Ironically, the West Indians never took interest in the fruit and preferred eating plantains.
If you believe in my observations of budding gardener, the breadfruit starts growing fruits after 3 to 5 years and its production is about 50 to 200 fruits a year. What’s great with the uru is that it grows all year long, especially between November and February and from April to July.
Even though you can find it pretty much everywhere in the Pacific area, it is mostly cultivated in Polynesia where we find quite a few varieties like the huero, the maohi, the puero and the rare.
If Polynesian people are so fond of uru, it is probably because it enabled them to survive during food shortage and dryness. Some say Marquesans owe their legendary strength to it.
With rice and taro, it remains part of the locals’ basic food but our guilty pleasure is definitely to mix it with corned beef and peas and to eat it with our fingers!
Wait a minute, let me put my chef’s hat on… “So Caroline, tell us, how do you prepare the uru?”
First of all, you need to pick it once it is ripe, that is to say when the sap starts trickling out. And here generally comes the grandpa of the neighborhood who has kept improving his rou over the years and turns out to be quite clever with his hands.
Then all you need to do is take out the stem and let the sap drain out. Little tip, if you do not want to look like an amateur, draw some crosses over the surface of the fruit to prevent it from exploding as it gets warm. Put it in the fire and turn it over from time to time until it becomes totally black and gets covered with a thin layer of ashes. Then, Khaleesi style, you just need to put it out of the fire and start peeling it.
It is obviously less epic but you can still put it directly over the gas stove and if you don’t feel like it, you can also boil it, roast it or steam it.
Timeless, the uru can now be served as fries, a gratin, a stew or even as flour, a great vegan alternative.
Eventually, if we have already talked to you about the bonbon cerette, know that the candied popo uru also encounters a tremendous success here.
Food shortages inculcated the necessity of storage in Polynesians mind. Generally called mei in the Gambier archipelago, the breadfruit, once ripe, was scraped with a shell, mashed and stored in an underground pit, under dried auti leaves. This mixture is referred to as tī’ō’ō, and used to be known as mahi, it can be kept up to one year.
Perhaps have you heard of it before under the name of pōpoi, its equivalent when the mixture was cooked in the Tahitian oven, the ahima’a, before fermenting.
Every Sunday morning, before dawn, takes place a weird ballet in the famous market of Papeete. Every week, the same ritual, the same exhibitors who arrange their stalls on the roadside. There, on the corner of the street, some māmā exposing peculiar beverages. If you are lucky and patient enough, perhaps will they reveal the secret of these tiny bottles but for now, let’s see what the virtues of the breadfruit are.
With a high fiber and calcium content, rich in starch and vitamin C, the fruit reinforces the organism’s tissues and helps iron absorption. Its seeds contain lots of proteins and vitamin B1, known for furthering body growth and development whereas its leaves are rich in iron, calcium and vitamin C.
Quickly, the uru revealed its healing and anti-inflammatory properties, it became a precious ally in case of sprain or bruise. The roots is used to heal bronchitis at calm asthma while the flowers, when grilled and rubbed against the gums help treating toothaches.
Believe it or not but the uru was part of the Polynesians’ beauty routine for years. Men put sap in their hair as a gel while women used to boil it with a bit of monoi in a pahua shell before applying it onto their hair.
The tumu uru is part of the Polynesian patrimony. Its trunk was used to conceive arms, outrigger canoes, furniture and even music instruments.
The latex located inside helped men catching birds and calking outrigger canoes with coir.
Eventually, even though it is not as noble as the banyan tree, its bark was used to create tapa.
The breadfruit plays a leading role within the Polynesian culture, cuisine and medicine. The tales and legends like that of Ruata’ata testify of its historical importance.