The jackfruit, now being hailed as the new vegan sensation in the Western world, has been a crucial part of the South and Southeast Asian diet for centuries.
Jackfruit originates between the Western Ghats of Southern India and the rainforests of Malaysia. Archeological studies reveal that jackfruit was cultivated in the Indian subcontinent as far as 3000 to 6000 years ago. It is the national fruit of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and the state fruit of the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The image of jackfruit can be quite intimidating. It is the largest tree-borne fruit and can weigh up to 50 kgs. It is also completely encased by a thick, spiky skin. Thus, bringing home a jackfruit in a South Asian household is no simple task.
Enough space must be cleared out, preferably near windows to diffuse the thick banana and apple-like scent. A large knife that is slathered in oil is then used to crack open the fruit through its centre. However, the hard work that is put into storing and cutting the fruit pays off when you get a taste of its sweet, juicy pods. This once unfarmed and unharvested fruit, which was merely enjoyed in local villages, has now become a popular export for the Southern states of India.
Unripe jackfruits are harvested from plantations across South Asia, then chopped and canned to be sold to the other side of the world. The fruit is gaining popularity for three key reasons. First, its ability to mimic shredded meat like pulled pork, makes it a great plant-based meat substitute for vegans and vegetarians.
Secondly, it is packed with vitamin C, potassium, dietary fibre and other vitamins and minerals essential for our diet. Finally, its strong resistance to drought and disease may make it the answer to emerging food security issues. Many scientists believe jackfruits could replace staple crops such as wheat and corn, which are currently under threat due to climate change.
What do jackfruits taste like?
In Southeast and South Asian cultures, the jackfruit is eaten in both its ripe and unripe form. Ripe jackfruit can be quite sweet with hints of banana, pineapple and mango-like flavours. Its scent is often compared to its notorious cousin, the durian, but its flavour is a lot less controversial and much more subdued. It is commonly eaten on its own and is also used to make a variety of sweet dishes, such as the popular Filipino dessert, halo-halo. The seeds of the fruit are often roasted or boiled and then added to curries.
Unripe jackfruit, on the other hand, has a much milder flavour with a stringy, meat-like texture. This is what we commonly find canned or frozen in supermarkets or Asian grocery stores. The mildness and starchy content of the unripe fruit allow it to soak up any added flavour, making it an ideal candidate for different cooking applications.
This characteristic has led to its now popular use as a substitute for pork in pulled pork sandwiches, tuna in tuna melts and crab in crab cakes. However, in many cultures, this fruit is no substitute, but rather the star ingredient that meals are centred around. Its more traditional uses include curries, stir-frys and stews.
How can I use it in my kitchen?
You could use it for a vegan pulled pork dish or a tuna melt. However, there is a much larger variety of dishes found in Southeast and South Asian cuisine that is often not seen in popular media.
If you are a fan of Indian food, then try out kathal biryani or jackfruit biryani. It is a hearty rice dish made with unripe jackfruit and Indian spices. It can be slightly labour-intensive and time-consuming, but the mouthwatering aromas, vibrant colours and perfect fluffy rice make it completely worth it. Some recipes might call for yogurt, but you can easily replace it with your favourite vegan yogurt or vegan cream. If you prefer plant-based cream like cashew cream, add some extra lemon juice or vinegar to make up for the lack of acidity. If you enjoy cooking and experimenting with different cuisines then this should be on your bucket list!
If you lean more towards curries, then the Sri Lankan polos or jackfruit curry is a great way to go. Similar to Thai and South Indian cuisine, this curry uses coconut milk for the base of the gravy, which perfectly counters the pungent spices, making it creamy, balanced and delicious! Serve it with a bowl of rice on the side to make this a filling and soulful meal.