What Is Jackfruit?
2017 is the year of the jackfruit, according to Pinterest's annual trend reporting—but unless you've spent a lot of time searching for vegetarian recipes in the last six months, I would venture to say there's a good chance you've never heard of jackfruit. Heck, even folks who are looking for vegetarian recipes might be intimidated by using jackfruit in recipes, because what is jackfruit, even? How do you cook with jackfruit? Why is jackfruit so popular all of a sudden, and how, exactly, can a fruit taste like pulled pork? Is this Pinterest trolling us, or is jackfruit a viable plant-based alternative to meat that Americans should be embracing?
Let's start with the plant itself, shall we? Jackfruit trees are native to south and southeast Asia; think India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Thailand. And in those countries, jackfruit is an everyday ingredient. To give you a sense of the scale, "In South India, the jackfruit is a popular food ranking next to the mango and banana in total annual production," writes Julia F. Morton in Fruits of Warm Climates. The jackfruit itself is massive, weighing between 10 and 100 pounds. Let me say that again. When you're dealing with jackfruit, a single piece that weighs ten pounds is considered to be small.
So yes, it's an intimidating piece of fruit to work with based on weight alone, but don't forget about the prickly exterior that makes the jackfruit look like it belongs on the end of a stick like a mace. And, as Bonnie S. Benwick notes in the Washington Post, "Things don’t get easier once you cut the fruit open. A milky, hard-to-remove sap is released with each cut." That latex will stick to your knife and every surface around it. There's also a tough core, and each little pod of starchy jackfruit flesh is filled with fat, solid seeds that are hard as rocks.
The smell of jackfruit isn't exactly pleasant, either. It's a "distinctive, musky smell, and a flavor that some describe as like Juicy Fruit gum," according to Marc Silver at NPR. Silver adds that folks who participated in a taste test of jackfruit compared the aroma, "to overripe fruit, packaged fruit cup, smelly feet, stinky cheese and pet food." But that smell is how you know the fruit is ripe, and the flesh inside is a bright yellow hue, ready to eat.
And, somewhat against the odds, raw, ripe jackfruit is actually pretty delicious; tasters at the Washington Post, "found notes of pear, pineapple, banana and papaya in the ripe fruit, commenting favorably on a texture they identified as having more body than mango and a satisfying moisture level."
But the jackfruit takes on a whole new life when cooked. Those hard jackfruit seeds? After being boiled, they can be eaten like chestnuts. The bright yellow flesh is great in desserts; think jackfruit ice cream. And the flesh of a young jackfruit, one that is still a little green and hasn't fully ripened to have that bright yellow hue, is what's used to make the so-called vegetarian pulled pork and is commonly used in Indian and Thai curries.
If you're not used to eating plant-based meat substitutes, you might not think that a starchy, young jackfruit has enough heft to stand up to, say, pulled pork. But the fruit is surprisingly hearty and is packed with nutritional benefits, too. According to Epicurious, jackfruit is a good source of good source of protein, potassium, calcium, and iron.
Considering the health benefits of jackfruit, the myriad ways it can be prepared, and its ubiquity across tropical regions of the world, it should come as little shock that it's being heralded as a "miracle" crop. At least, that's what Shyamala Reddy, a biotechnology researcher at the University of Agriculture Sciences in Bangalore, India, told the Guardian, adding, "If you just eat 10 or 12 bulbs of this fruit, you don't need food for another half a day." The perennial tree is also pretty self-sufficient once planted and doesn't need much care from farmers, so researchers are looking at it as a potential solution to chronic food insecurity in tropical and subtropical areas of the world.
In other words, there's no reason to be intimidated by jackfruit—so go ahead make that jackfruit nachos recipe you've had Pinned for the last few months.