Friday, April 4, 2014

My first lesson in Marshallese cooking - Bwiro (fermented breadfruit)!

This past week I experienced a special treat and had my first lesson in making one of the dishes unique to the Marshall Islands - Bwiro. Breadfruit is prepared in various different ways depending on your  location or country.  Bwiro is a lightly sweet dish made from fermented breadfruit and coconut milk.  The Sister missionaries (Sister Butler and Sister Tafili) and I were taught how to prepare it by two wonderful Marshallese sisters that live here on Ebeye, Rosa Loeak and Atrina Katol.  Our little friend, Neitab Nebo also tagged along for the day (she's the sister's little shadow/helper and my dear little friend).   The sister missionaries had some free time on their P-Day (preparation day), so it was a great treat to learn a little bit about the culture of the Marshallese people and learn how to make one of the dishes that is served on special occasions.  I had previously eaten Bwiro, at Viliame's Kemmem (birthday party), and a couple of Iakwe's (going away parties), but I had no idea what I was eating. (Pretty brave of me, huh!?!)  All I knew was that it was made from breadfruit, very dense, and had a slight coconut flavor (that's enough to get me to taste anything), but other than that it was a big mystery.  To tell you the truth, I didn't even know what breadfruit was.  :)  So here goes, here is my little tutorial on Bwiro.
First, what is breadfruit?
Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) is a species of flowering tree in the mulberry family, growing throughout Southeast Asia and most of the Pacific Ocean islands. Its name is derived from the texture of the cooked fruit, which has a potato-like flavor, similar to freshly baked bread.
Breadfruit, and cross-section
The Marshallese word for breadfruit = Mā. 
Breadfruit can be baked, boiled, steamed, fried, put in soup and prepared in many different ways.  Some of these ways utilize the breadfruit when it is fresh, but for Bwiro the fruit is fermented.  The fruit is peeled and cored and cut up into pieces.  These pieces are then put into a porous cloth bag.  The bag is then buried underground in a manner that will allow the liquid to drain out of the bag.  These bags can also be stored in coolers, as long as they can have proper drainage.  The bags can be stored for as short a time as three days before using, but generally breadfruit preserved in this manner can be stored for 12 or more months before being eaten. Thus it has long served as an important emergency food in times when food is scarce (for example, following disastrous storms or other natural calamities).  The breadfruit we used had been stored for three years!  Yup, you heard me right, three years!
Here's our little cooking group: Rosa Loeak, Atrina Katol, young boy - sorry, I don't know his name!, Sister Butler, Sister Becker, and Sister Tafili
Sister Loeak and Sister Katol gathered and packed up all our supplies, including the bag of breadfruit, a propane stove, cooking supplies, board, water cooler (for drinking), and water jug to name a few things. Basically everything we would need to make and cook our Bwiro down by the beach.

From their homes we walked down to Beach Park which is located at the southern tip of Ebeye.  I could smell the fermented fruit as we walked down the street with all our supplies. The odor was quite pungent and had a very distinct and unique smell.  You could definitely smell the fermentation.  Curiosity was rising as I was wondering just what we were in for!  We hauled all our supplies right down to the ocean.  The beach is at the southern tip of the land where the water flows through Kwajalein Atoll from the ocean into the lagoon.  Big Bustard Island is just south of us and at a very low tide you can actually walk to Big Bustard Island.
Sister Tafili and Atrina Loeak on the beach.  Big Bustard Island is in the background. On the left side of the water, if you look closely, you can see the ocean waves breaking on the coral reef.  On the right side is the lagoon.  This is where the ocean meets the lagoon!
Now the work starts!  The cloth bag with the breadfruit is then immersed in the fast moving salt water to clean out the fruit.  The bag is put into the water and they work the salty water through the fruit.  Breaking up the pulp and rinsing out the fruit with their hands, they worked and worked and worked the water through the bag and it's contents. 

working the fruit with her hands

working it; breaking down the pulp

working the breadfruit up to their elbows.  You can see the cloudy pulp coming through the bag into the ocean water.
After a thorough washing with the salt water, the bag is taken over to a big piece of concrete and the water is squeezed out of the bag.  The bag is worked over and over until the water is worked out of the bag.  There are several broken pillars of concrete here on the beach from structures that have broken down over the years, but they come in real handy for this purpose. Who would've known!
taking the bag out of the water

Rosa squeezing the water out of the bag while Sister Tafili watches

Atrina's turn at squeezing the water out of the bag.  I think this is why they have such strong arms!

Once they are satisfied that most of the water has been removed from the pulp, the bag is returned to the salt water and the process is started all over again.  They work the bag through and through with their hands and arms until the water coming through the bag no longer looks cloudy.  Then they take the bag back to the concrete block and squeeze the water out again.

Atrina taking a break; isn't she beautiful?

Working the fruit in the salty ocean water, Atrina got right down into the water.
Sister Tafili enjoying the beach
At this point, it is now time for a third round, but this time using fresh water.  Fresh water is worked through the bag after which it is then squeezed one more time to get rid of the excess water.  Whew!  I got tired just watching the process!
Working the fresh water through the breadfruit

Squeezing the water out AGAIN. (don't you love the beautiful colors on their dresses?)

Watching them work! :)
Voila!  The pulp is now a good paste and is ready for the final steps.
Now it is time for the next step to work the pasty pulp with our hands.  A small amount of the pulp is put on a board and worked back and forth with the palm of the hand until it is nice and soft.  It took a few trials, but we finally got the technique. Very fun!  If they are preparing Bwiro for a large group they will have all the women in the family working portions of this paste on large boards.

Atrina showed us the technique. Back and forth, back and forth with the palm of the hand.

My turn to work!

Sister Butler's turn

a little hand action!

Sister Butler and Sister Tafili working double time!

The breadfruit is now ready to be cooked. Coconut milk (yum!), sweetened with sugar, is brought to a boil in a pot.  Small pieces are broken off, rolled, and dropped into the boiling milk.  The fruit is then boiled and cooked for a few minutes.  The milk will boil down and get thick and can be poured over the breadfruit after it has been taken out of the pot.  Now all that is left is to eat and enjoy!
Dropping the fruit into the boiling coconut milk

The finished product!  Bwiro with the sweetened coconut milk

Eating up!

Very dense substance

Atrina, Sister Tafili, and Neitab

Cooking away on the propane stove!

While we were working, Rosa also fixed us some lunch to go with our Bwiro!  She cooked up some rice and then made a stew/corned beef hash/corn mixture.  It was quite yummy!

I had a wonderful afternoon with the Sister missionaries and our Marshallese Sisters. 
Kommol tata (Thank you very much), Rosa and Atrina!


  1. A very interesting presentation. Lots of work for sure. I'm sure McDonalds wont be putting this on the menu. Lew

  2. Thanks so much Lisa for sharing the culture and sisterhood you are experiencing. It's so great to see you looking so good too. Sending love to both of you.

  3. I miss the wonderful members in Ebeye. I loved this blog post. (I served in Ebeye in 2007.)