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Food for Thought: Growing Your Own Carbohydrates

Written by Scott Middlekauf on 24 November 2010.

Scott shows off his peach palms.
Scott shows off his peach palms.
Just the other day, while I was eating my supper in one of my “doom and gloom” modes, it occurred to me that I have no idea what sort of a safety net exists globally in terms of food supply. How much food is stored up? My answer could have been three months, or three years. I had no clue. So, I went on a few government web sites to look at the official statistics. As it turns out, since 1999, global grain production has consistently fallen short of demand. 2008 was the largest worldwide grain harvest ever, but it failed to break even. So right now we are left with a 59 day buffer. Two months, then we are running on empty (empty bellies, that is).

It seems to me that there are many links along the chain of food production and distribution that could fail to support the weight of our population. A multitude of surprises could await us: war-inspired blockades, oil shortages leading to fertilizer shortages, weather extremes which may fail to nurture our fields, social or economic unrest leading to disorder, local storms interfering with ships. We live in interesting times. There are many things that we can neither change nor predict. Fortunately, here in Hawai’i food security comes easy, particularly with respect to carbohydrates.

As tropical farmers, we have several easy-to-grow alternatives to grains. Some options are: sweet potato, taro, cassava, and plantain. However, some tree crops in particular make carbohydrates available with very low labor input, high disease resistance, and a reliable harvest. A few notable ones are Breadfruit (‘Ulu), Breadnut, Malabar Chestnut, and Peach Palm.

Many of the plants of the genus Artocarpus grow rapidly and produce heavily on the rainy side of the Big Island. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is no exception. Breadfruit will begin fruiting in about 3-5 years, and continue fruiting for 50 years or more. Depending on your conditions, a mature tree fruits more or less continuously for 8-10 months. Some fruits may be present on the tree almost all year long, with ripeness coming in several flushes during the year. As the tree matures, these flushes will overlap more and more, becoming an almost continuous season. There are at least 160 named varieties of breadfruit. I have tasted 7 varieties, and consider them about as similar as the various potatoes. The most interesting factor in having more than one variety of breadfruit is they may ripen at different times of the year. There is very little information available on this island about which varieties fruit at which times of the year. Also, the seasons vary from year to year, and production varies according to rainfall and elevation. I have 6 varieties in the ground, and am gradually learning about these trees. Based on observations of my fairly young trees, I am guessing that with a few select varieties, a 12 month harvest will be possible. I’ll let you know in ten years. For now, the Hawaiian and the Samoan (ma’a’ fala) are the most readily available, and they make good eating. You can’t go wrong with either of these.

Cooked Breadfruit is less than 2% protein and about 3-6% fat. To prepare a breadfruit for eating, just do anything that you would do to a potato. It can be steamed, boiled, baked, roasted, and/or fried. The skin and core are edible and agreeable, though some prefer to remove them. Once cooked, it can be mashed, sliced, fried, and combined with any recipe in place of pasta, grain, or potatoes. Homefries, lasagna, poi, and pancakes are among the final products. I personally like to steam it in the pressure cooker for 15 minutes, then make mashed breadfruit, because it is so easy. If you can get the timing right, a whole Breadfruit stuffed under the embers at an outdoor fire comes out really delicious.

Breadnut (Artocarpus camansi) is in the same genus as Breadfruit, but is considered a different species. This tree has very similar appearance and growing habits. Its fruit looks very much like a Breadfruit, but is filled with seeds instead of starchy pulp. The seeds are somewhat like jackfruit seeds. Breadnut has significant amounts of protein (13-16%) and fat (6-29%). Breadnut seeds are very similar to, and a bit better than, Jackfruit seeds. I usually boil Jackfruit seeds for over an hour, when they’re slightly soft and the skin splits.

Malabar Chestnut (Pachira aquatic) also grows rapidly and begins fruiting in a few years. Its fruits are generally similar to Breadnut, in that within each fruit are a number of seeds which can be boiled, roasted, or steamed to yield a tasty carbohydrate. Malabar seeds are about 16% protein and 40% fat. I like to boil the seeds for 15 minutes, then scoop out the flesh and eat it with a tiny spoon. It has a nutty sweet flavor. A worthy snack all on its own.

Peach Palm (Bactris gasipaes) is known on this island for its heart of palm. It grows very rapidly, and is clumping. These two features make it a very prolific producer of palm heart. Of more interest to subsistence farmers is its high protein (16%), oily, and starchy fruit. In Central and South America, there are dozens of varieties of Peach Palm specifically grown for their fruit. Unfortunately, as far as I know, the varieties that are grown here on this island are selected for their heart. Since these fruits have oxalic acid (like taro) they need to be cooked thoroughly. I boil them for at least an hour (or two) and remove the peel before eating.

I encourage you to plant at least one starch producing tree on your property. It’s a small investment of time and energy, and it may one day meet your most basic needs. Most people in this country, even farmers, have become used to food always being available at the store. For those of us who haven’t experienced hunger, it’s difficult to fathom the emotional effect of not having basic food to put on the table. Psychically, food has been relegated to the position of entertainment. It has not always been so, and it may not always be so in our future. Your Breadfruit tree could one day stand as the most precious thing in your life.

If anyone knows of sources of Peach Palm varieties which are selected for their fruit, or has information about breadfruit seasons and varieties, or if you want to talk story about other aspects of this article, please get in touch with me by leaving a comment below.

Scott Middlekauf lives with his wife Karin Payne on their 22 acre sustainable farmstead in Kapoho. You can read their fascinating blog at EveningRainFarm.com.