This Fruit Is a Jack of All Trades for Vegan Cooks
“Moderation is a fatal thing,” wrote Oscar Wilde in the society play A Woman of No Importance. “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Just because I don’t happen to agree with the sentiment doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a great witticism, and that one comes in handy when describing everything from the famously lustful dining scene in the 1963 film Tom Jones to evolution by natural selection and (no surprise) Donald Trump.
This week, though, what brings it to mind is the current obsession with jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), a tropical “superfruit” in the mulberry family that’s, well, yuge on several levels. The mature trees, which can grow up to 50 feet tall in South and Southeast Asia, may bear up to 200-plus fruits in a single season. Each oblong fruit (the largest known tree-borne fruit) emerges from the trunk or large branches and can easily weigh in at 40 pounds or more. That said, the specimens you’ll find at Asian markets or many grocery stores typically range from 10 to 20 pounds or so—which is far more manageable but still intimidating to the uninitiated.
Specialty purveyor Melissa’s Produce addresses the learning curve right up front. “Wear old clothes, latex gloves, and cover cutting board with plastic wrap (jackfruit are sticky!)” reads the first in six instructional steps on how to break down and enjoy the fresh fruit. No kidding. David Thompson, author of the encyclopedic Thai Food, described jackfruit’s latex-like sap as infuriatingly sticky. “Traditionally the hands are rubbed with oil to protect them, but I find that everything still becomes dangerously gluey,” he wrote, although, he concluded, “it is worth the effort.”
When ripe, jackfruit has spiny yellow skin and a potent—some would say controversial—aroma and flavor that will conjure banana, mango, and pineapple all rolled into one...or Juicy Fruit gum. The interior is packed with large, fleshy, edible bulbs embedded in a tough core. The ripe fruit is used in sweets (from ice cream and puddings to Nashville chef Maneet Chauhan’s jackfruit upside-down cake) and drinks, and the seeds inside the bulbs are edible as well. Frieda’s, another great specialty produce company, has the lowdown on how to cook them, and you’ll discover they taste a bit like chestnuts or lotus seeds.
Like papaya and mango, jackfruit is also appreciated in its green (unripe) form as a vegetable. That’s how I first had it—as an ingredient in curries—in Kerala and how I prefer it. You’ll find it treated similarly in Thailand and elsewhere in that part of the world. When used in a savory dish, unripe jackfruit (often called “raw jackfruit” in recipes) is what I would call an opportunistic ingredient. It absorbs flavors readily, and its texture is reminiscent of shredded chicken or pork. It’s a great vegan meat substitute, which goes a long way in explaining why it’s so au courant. Google “BBQ jackfruit,” and you’ll see what I mean. Then come right back.
Among the shelf-stable jackfruit products available in upscale supermarkets are four varieties (Thai Curry, Bar-B-Que, Chili Lime Carnitas, and Original) made by Upton’s Naturals, a Chicago-based vegan company that was recently profiled in Food Business News, and various renditions from The Jackfruit Company, founded, along with Global Village Fruits, by social entrepreneur Annie Ryu. The Harvard grad had an epiphany on a trip to India, she told the Boston Business Journal. Much of that country’s jackfruit crop goes to waste, she added. “I thought if I could connect this great crop with a market, it could create opportunity.”
Jackfruit, once an important staple crop in India, is viewed negatively today as a “poor man’s food,” as it’s cheap and abundant. But the fruit is high in nutritive value. Unusually for a fruit, it contains B vitamins, and, according to an article published in the journal Genetics and Molecular Research, every 100 grams of ripe “flakes” contains 287 to 323 milligrams of potassium, 30.0 to 73.2 milligrams of calcium, and 11 to 19 grams of carbohydrates.
“The nutritious seeds are boiled or roasted and eaten like chestnuts, added to flour for baking, or cooked in dishes. The tree is also known for its durable timber, which ages to an orange or reddish brown color, with anti-termite properties,” wrote the researchers. “The leaves and fruit waste provide valuable fodder for cattle, pigs and goats. Jackfruit wood chips yield a dye, which is used to give the famous orange-red color to the robes of Buddhist priests,” and many parts of the plant have medicinal uses as well.
Let’s also not forget increased food security. According to a 2014 report from the International Panel on Climate Change, climate change is already affecting the yields of staple crops such as wheat and maize, particularly in developing countries. A number of researchers, including Nyree Zerega, director of the graduate program in plant biology and conservation at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden, are on the prowl for underutilized alternatives such as jackfruit. A symposium devoted to the genetic diversity, marketing, and “value addition” of jackfruit and its close cousin breadfruit was held at the University of Agricultural Sciences, in Bangalore, in May 2014.
A wide variation in fruit quality is among the problems facing plant scientists interested in developing jackfruit’s potential. In fact, people’s love-it-or-hate-it response to the fruit may be a quality issue, said Richard Campbell, director of horticulture and senior curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, when interviewed for Edible South Florida.
“There is definitely more awareness today,” explained Campbell, who is also the coauthor, with Noris Ledesma, of The Exotic Jackfruit: Growing the World’s Largest Fruit. “The jackfruit has a strong cultural connection with the people of Asia. Here in South Florida there is a growing awareness of the jackfruit that comes through these ethnic groups. Mango is indeed highly successful in South Florida and is our biggest farm-gate fruit, but jackfruit is also strong and growing.”
Jackfruit trees are easy to grow in South Florida and have been cultivated there for more than a century. At Fairchild, researchers have focused on the introduction and development of superior cultivars (some with smaller fruit) for use in tropical America, and I recently met a Florida gardener who planted a few of them last year. “They’re going like gangbusters!” she said. Nothing succeeds like excess.