Visitors to French Polynesia are invariably impressed by the majestic silhouette of the breadfruit tree (called tumu’uru in Tahitian) and its big orb-like fruits. Besides being an integral part of the Polynesian landscape, the fruit has been a dietary staple since ancient times.
The tumu’uru (artocarpus altilis) more often called uru, is an unmistakable component of Polynesian flora. Interestingly, the history of this fruit is similar to that of the great Polynesian explorers who brought it to the islands. According to today’s accepted theories, ancestors of today’s Polynesians originated in Southeast Asia. During several waves of migration these great sailors populated Western Polynesia (Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands) around 1000 to 1500 BC then in the first centuries of our Common Era they continued on to colonize Eastern Polynesia and what is today French Polynesia.
Traveling from island to island in massive double outrigger canoes, these first people brought with them everything they needed to survive including uru trees, that they planted upon arrival. Soon they propagated this tree, originally from Papua New Guinea, all throughout the archipelagos.
As part of the Moraceae family, the uru is surprisingly big. The tree can grow to be up to 25 m (82 ft) high and be 1.20 m (4 ft) in diameter. One of the uru‘s main characteristics is that one tree has both male and female flowers. This quality makes the tree classed by botanists as being monoecious. The oval or round shaped flowers (that are both male and female) generally bloom from June to September.
On certain islands with more favorable climates such as in the Marquesas Islands, tumu’uru give fruit nearly year-round. Fruit grow in bunches of two to three and turn from green to yellow as they ripen. Uru come in many different varieties – over 50 in French Polynesia alone. The most well-known are the puero, hamoa and huero varieties. On Tahiti the maohi, with its thick foliage is the most widespread. This type of tree gives off round or oval fruit about 15 cm (6 in) in diameter and often covered in resin.
From a small taproot, a new, majestic tree is born. This natural propagation seems relatively easy but does require some effort. In order to give fruit, the tree, whether it’s near the shore or living at an elevation of up to 600 m (1970 ft), or is growing in lime or volcanic soil, must be treated with care. It needs to be trimmed regularly to not grow taller than about 12 m (40 ft) and must receive plenty of sun. Marshy or heavily irrigated areas are to be avoided. Uru trees are highly productive and usually give fruit five years after being planted; after this they can bare fruit for about 50 years. Some varieties give fruit year-round while other species, that bare fruit seasonally, are often tastier. The tree has been the object of on-going research by Polynesian farmers who developed agricultural techniques to activate ripening of the fruit. As talented horticulturalists, Polynesians cross-pollinated varieties using their deep knowledge of each variety and their attributes. The number of varieties we see today are thus the results of the meticulous work of generations of islanders. So even though the Uru seems like a part of nature’s abundance, it is in fact partly due to human labor. Fruit is harvested with a rou uru, a long stick with a fork at the end.
The climate in French Polynesia is divided into two tropical seasons: the wet season and the dry season. Thus in ancient times, the seasons were marked by periods of food shortages when there was little irrigation. Fruit production is much lower in the dry season. For this reason, the uru was especially useful to the ancient Polynesians. For centuries populations knew they could rely on these particularly nourishing fruits to help them get through the toughest periods of the year. The uru was so important it was even a form of currency. Fruit was often given to thank someone for their services or simply given to hosts as a gesture of hospitality and friendliness. In this way the fruit went beyond a form of food and was entrenched in social life. Polynesians have always been very attached to their community social lives and used food as a form of communication. Village get-togethers when everyone prepared food together was a time to exchange, bond and become a part of the heart of the social group. During times of food shortages, the people worked in organized union with each other to cook and prepare the precious fruit.
The people became very inventive about ways to conserve uru to make sure they had provisions during food shortages. Ripe uru rot quickly – in just a few days. In this particularly hot and humid climate with no pottery type of conservation, Polynesians still managed to invent techniques to stock their food. Uru were either cooked or fermented into a paste then stored in pits (mahi) especially made for this purpose. Based on the principal of fruit acid fermentation, mahi were dug throughout all the Polynesian isles to keep food. The islanders stocked these pits that could sometimes be as large as 100 m3 (3,530 ft3) and five meters (16 ft) in depth and diameter, full of their ripe uru when times were plentiful. Mahi are most prevalent in the Marquesas Islands. Conservation by cooking meant cooking excess ripe fruit in a pit oven called an ahimaa – ahi meaning fire and mā’a meaning food. These ovens were dug to about 50 to 80 cm (20 to 30 in) of depth with a diameter of up to 2m (6 ½ ft). Hot stones were carefully arranged at the bottom. After removing the skin, the fruit was cut into chunks and the seeds removed. The fruit pieces were wrapped in leaves, placed in the ahimaa then covered with leaves and hot rocks that were then covered by another layer of leaves and soil. Within about 30 minutes the cooked fruit could be taken out. Once cooked the fruit is called opi’o. The happy moment when the uru was done meant getting all the family and sometimes community together to share and celebrate the meal. Even today a meal cooked in an ahimaa is a special social event for Polynesians.
Nutritious and Satisfying
In ancient and current Polynesian society, the fruit, leaves, bark and every part of the tumu’uru are used daily. Breadfruit are eaten in several different ways, sweet or savory, baked, fried or boiled. Nourishing and satisfying this starchy side dish is part of every traditional Polynesian meal. Eat it roasted, cooked and sliced, mashed or doused in coconut milk. In the 1960s when the Polynesian diet was becoming more Westernized, islanders began eating less breadfruit, replacing it with bread, rice and pasta. Less trees were planted for family food resources. Today uru is making a bit of a comeback in new types of products such as ready-cut packaged peices or as a new type of potato chip. It’s still eaten often in the home and its distinct flavor is now also being explored by chefs who cook it new and creative ways. After a brief hiatus, uru seems to be aspiring to make its way back into the heart of Polynesian society once again.
Rua-ta’ata, Breadfruit origin legend
Raiatea was suffering a devastating famine. Rua-ta’ata and his wife Rumau-ari’i had no more food to feed their children. To stay alive they ate ferns that grew in the mountains. One evening, exhausted from hunger, Rua-ta’ata told his beloved wife that he wished to become a tree, whose fruits could be cooked to nourish his family. He imagined that his hands would become the leaves, his body and legs would become the trunk and branches, his head would be the fruit and his tongue would be the core of the fruit. In the morning his wife discovered to her surprise and relief that his wish had been granted. A breadfruit tree had grown, full of ripe fruit, and the family was saved.
A Central Role in the Mutiny of the Bounty
In 1776, during his exploratory expedition of Tahiti, Captain James Cook made note of the breadfruit, or uru, in his journals. Its nutritional value soon thrust it to center-stage in the legendary drama of the Bounty, one of the most famous maritime expeditions in history. The Bounty was sent to Tahiti by the king of England in 1788, with orders to collect seedlings of the breadfruit and transplant them to the Caribbean colonies, where they would provide an inexpensive food source for the slaves. Once in Tahiti, the crew worked hard to assemble hundreds of seedlings and great care was taken to assure their survival. In contrast, Captain Bligh’s harsh treatment of his crew became less and less tolerable. After the mutiny, which has gone down in history, the breadfruit project was stalled. However, in 1793, the British Admiralty made another attempt, and this time it was successful. The plants were delivered to Jamaica where they flourish today.