PAITAMKUNNU, India—The rustle of dehydrated jackfruit chips echoed through Shaji Elanjimattom’s warehouse in Paitamkunnu, a village in the foothills of the Western Ghats mountain range in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Women dressed in maxi dresses and flowing saris were busily putting the finishing touches on jackfruit products for an upcoming exhibition in the coastal city of Alappuzha. Among the items being packed in bright-blue plastic crates were jackfruit puttu podi, a version of Kerala’s famous steamed breakfast dish puttu, traditionally made with rice flour; jackfruit upma mix, a polenta-like dish made from coarse jackfruit powder instead of semolina; dehydrated jack seeds; jackfruit cake; jackfruit pickle; and even a jack seed–based coffee alternative called Jaffee.
“Our idea is to bring jackfruit to the common man’s palate, integrating it into his daily diet,” said Elanjimattom, an entrepreneur who has been involved in the jackfruit processing company JAXO 100, which makes 23 jack-based products, since it was started in 2013. If JAXO 100 has its way, people in Kerela will be eating jackfruit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and without significantly changing the dishes they’re preparing.
Even if you’re more likely to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast than to have puttu podi, jackfruit may be increasingly familiar. In the United States, it is fast emerging as a trendy ingredient, extolled both for its nutritional value and for the unripe fruit’s ability to mimic the texture of pork and chicken. In a recent Wall Street Journal story heralding “the next hot trends in food,” the paper named jackfruit “the next meat alternative.” With the U.S. market for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives raking in $3.5 billion in annual sales, that would be a big prize. But in India, where jackfruit grows wild, Elanjimattom and others who are working to promote jackfruit are more focused on making it a staple in the diets of the 1.25 billion people who live there—195 million of whom suffer from hunger.
Not only does jackfruit offer year-round availability and vast culinary potential, but the trees can withstand just about anything, including drought, and still produce. The crop remains something of a squandered resource in India, however, even though the need to explore jackfruit as a food source is more pressing than ever. Despite its economic growth in recent decades, India is a largely agrarian society, and farmers rely solely on the two monsoons to feed the rivers and other water sources that are used to irrigate crops. Drastic changes in weather patterns have resulted in failed monsoons in the country for three consecutive years, and the lack of rain has led to crop failures and farmer suicides in many parts of the country. With groundwater sources depleted and reservoirs running low, India is facing an agrarian crisis.
In the front yards of households across rural India, it’s common to see the massive, pebble-skinned fruit clustered tightly against the branches of jack trees. The trees are grown most abundantly in the south, especially in the states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, and in Maharashtra in the west. According to Shree Padre, a journalist and jackfruit enthusiast who runs the Kannada-language agricultural magazine Adike Patrike, India is perhaps the world’s largest producer of jackfruit. A recent study conducted by the National Horticulture Board (the agriculture ministry doesn’t track the crop) pegged the production of ripe jackfruit at 2.2 million tons between 2014 and 2015, up from 1.5 million tons the year before. But in the case of jackfruit, it’s more important to think of the crop in terms of how much is being used and for what—not the overall size of the harvest.
Take the eight jackfruit trees that grow in front of Sissy Joey’s house in Velikkadu, a village in Kerala’s Palakkad district: Every season each produces 35 fruits weighing as much as 80 pounds each. “After our consumption, we used to either feed our cattle or simply throw away most of our fruits for composting,” she told TakePart. Not anymore. Now, Joey not only sells her fruit to JAXO 100 but also works sealing jackfruit puttu podi into packets at one of Elanjimattom’s warehouses. Joey, a homemaker, earns about $150 a month between selling her harvest during the season and processing jackfruit produce after the season ends; the average agricultural laborer in rural Kerala earns upwards of $180 monthly.
Commercial operations like Elanjimattom’s are something of a rarity, however, and without a commercial jackfruit sector or a sizable industry that manufactures jackfruit products, the crop is not completely used. The harvest may be great, but “the wastage is also phenomenal,” Padre said.
But there aren’t many small-scale farmers like Joey who are able to sell their excess crop to small-time jackfruit entrepreneurs. Ganesh Kamat, who lives in the village of Padubelle, in Karnataka, also grows jackfruit in his front yard. “Every year we get an average of [1,100 pounds] of jackfruit from our four trees,” Kamat said.
In rural parts of India, including where Kamat lives, jackfruit is a traditional food source, providing nutrition during the monsoon seasons when other crops can be scarce. The bottom shelves of his pantry are lined with jars of jackfruit bulbs pickled in brine. Sometimes, slivers of raw mango are added to the jars, lending a sweet, tangy flavor to the otherwise bland jackfruit. “During heavy rains, when there is a dearth of vegetables, we use pickled jackfruit regularly in our meals,” he said. Even with drought now a more common problem than flooding, the jack trees still provide. The brined fruit is steamed or stir-fried with spices and served with rice. The seeds are pressure cooked, pan roasted, and eaten like nuts or incorporated in curries with vegetables such as Malabar spinach and cucumber. The thorny outer skin is thrown under the coconut trees for composting, and whatever fruit is leftover ends up as cattle feed.
India’s abundance of jackfruit and the gap between growers and manufacturers of jackfruit products is a problem begging for a solution. But perhaps the disregard for jackfruit is the result of its abundance. “The fragrance of the jasmine bush in our own courtyard will always be underappreciated,” Padre said, referring to a Malayalam proverb about how traditions are often overlooked as people consider modern ways of life.
It may be time, however, to wake up and smell the jasmine. The monsoons have failed again this year, and the government has declared a drought in both Karnataka—usually one of the first states to receive monsoonal rains in the month of May—and Kerala. As the dry weather continues, food security issues are also growing.
The lack of rain has prompted farmers to look for more drought-tolerant crops. In Karnataka, nearly 7,500 acres of farmland previously planted with water-intensive commodities such as rice and sugarcane have been converted to jackfruit cultivation, according to Sharath V Hittalmani, a retired horticultural officer with the agricultural department in Karnataka. “Two things have contributed to this change,” he said. “We are staring at an almost rainless future, and crops like jackfruit can help us combat food security issues. Also, there is an increasing demand for jackfruit products now.”
But before commercial-scale jackfruit farming can take off in a major way, manufacturers like JAXO 100 and others are figuring out how to use what’s already being grown and to establish the necessary infrastructure to harvest, process, and distribute it.
Though people unfamiliar with jackfruit may be willing to introduce it into their diet, jackfruit products aren’t as available across the country as they are in Kerala. That is slowly changing. The movement to harness jackfruit as a means of mitigating the food security risks created by climate change is spreading across India.
“Climate change is an unavoidable reality,” Elanjimattom said, leaning forward in the pale green plastic chair behind his office desk for emphasis. “Heat waves, induced by climate change, have resulted in crop loss. We’ve had instances of even hardy cash crops like rubber decimated owing to increases in temperature.” Jack trees are resilient to these changing weather patterns. The saplings need irrigation and other care for two years, but after that, the tree is on its own. Since most jack farming is done in front yards like Kamat’s and Joey’s, Indian jackfruit and its byproducts are pesticide free and grown more or less organically.
Nandita Iyer, a nutrition expert from Bangalore who blogs about healthy vegetarian cooking at saffrontrail.com, noted that jackfruit can be used throughout India’s vast and varied cuisines—bridging the 2,000-mile divide between the coconut-scented cooking found in the south and the rich, buttery curries of the north. “The unripe fruit has a texture that mimics meat and goes well in curries or even in a biryani,” she said. “In Tamil homes, the seed finds its way into sambar, the soupy south Indian dal.” But while it is common to see supermarkets and vegetable sellers stocking baby jackfruit, things found in a rural kitchen like Kamat’s, such as unripe bulbs and seeds, are harder to come by—and businesses are taking note.
Old and new players are ushering jackfruit into new markets, catering to the growing demand. Panasa Pottu, a brand that sells shredded jackfruit, is doing good business during the growing season in Andhra Pradesh, on the southeastern coast. There has been an upsurge in articles about jackfruit’s health benefits, including claims made by some that it can curb diabetes. Even if that’s not the case, the attention is giving the thorny fruit a modern makeover, both slowly replacing the image of jackfruit as a rural staple and spurring demand. In Odisha, in the east, a retail venture called Veggie Kart that sources fresh produce directly from farmers is selling jackfruit. In Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital, the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research is training tribal women to process baby jackfruit.
“Still, Kerala is the pioneer in creating awareness about jackfruit,” Padre said. The state has numerous processing units, jackfruit exhibitions are held regularly, and a jackfruit promotion council was formed a couple years ago. More could be done. There is no systematic data or studies on jackfruit consumption or cultivation, for example, and Padre believes that conducting such research would help to increase awareness and consumption.
“If need-based research is done on the medicinal benefits and nutritional aspects of jackfruit, the fruit will be seen in a different light,” he said. “If a multinational player arrives in the Indian market looking for jackfruit, it will certainly get a boost.” In the U.S., The Jackfruit Company, which sells ready-to-eat jack products such as curry and a Tex-Mex-spiced taco-filling mix, says it’s the largest supplier of the fruit in the world and is already working with more than 300 smallholder farms across India.
Back at the warehouse in Paitamkunnu, I asked Elanjimattom’s employees if they had tried any of the products. Several replied in unison, “We’re the product testers.” They work on recipes and new products every year during jackfruit season, developing and tweaking them before they are ready for launch in the market. “With the upma mix, you need to add a little bit of rava [wheat grit], or else it’ll taste a little too much of jackfruit,” one advised.
According to Padre, the jackfruit movement in India is well under way and is nurtured by laypeople “who are putting their hearts and souls in it.” The nimble fingers and cheer of Joey and her colleagues are proof of that.