If you love Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, you’ll most likely love Jackfruit. Word has it that Wrigley took inspiration from the jackfruit to flavor his world-famous chewing gum. Sweet and fruity, the flavor of jackfruit has been compared to bananas, pineapples, mangos and peaches.
Actually, this exotic fruit is in a class of its own. With its thick, rough skin, ungainly appearance and monstrous size, the jackfruit is the largest known tree-borne fruit in the world. It can grow up to three feet in length and 100 pounds in weight!
Jackfruit trees are known to have originated in India. The tall, stately evergreens thrive in tropical and sub-tropical regions where climate is warm and humid much of the year: Asia, South America, Africa and the South Pacific. If you live in Hawaii or South Florida where they’re also cultivated, you’re probably familiar with the strong, fruity aroma that the fruits give off as they ripen. The smell may be pungent to some but is absolutely heavenly to those of us who love them.
Jackfruits belong to the Moraceae family, which include the fig, mulberry and breadfruit. Also known as jaca in Spanish and nangka in Malay, these oversized babies spring from the trunk and branches of their mother trees, taking about four to eight months to mature fully. A productive tree can yield up to 200 fruits per year.
Inside the fruit are sweet, fragrant yellow bulbs or pods that are sometimes soft, juicy and custard-like, or else firm, dry and crispy — depending on the variety and level of ripeness. Here in Asia, both ripe and unripe jackfruits figure prominently in our cuisines. While still young, the green jackfruit has a stringy, meat-like texture resembling pork and chicken. It’s actually a great substitute for pulled pork. Vegetarians like to call immature jackfruit “tree mutton.” A vegan meal that is quickly gaining popularity in the West these days is jackfruit carnitas, or pulled young jackfruit that’s been marinated, grilled, and then served as sandwiches or burritos.
Here in the Philippines, we like cooking unripe jackfruit as ginataang langka. The meat is cut in thin slices, then simmered in coconut milk, ginger, onions, garlic, salt and pepper. Some add shrimp, pork or slivers of dried fish. In most other Asian countries, the unripe fruit is added into soups, curries, stews, or deep-fried like fries.
When ripe, fresh jackfruit pods are delicious as a snack or dessert, tossed into salads, mixed into sherbets or ice cream, or freeze-dried and enjoyed as chips. They can also be sweetened into candies, jam or syrup. In Nepal, ripe jackfruit juice is used in brewing liquor.
What’s awesome about this fruit is that its seeds are also edible. Inside the bulbs are large nut-like seeds resembling Brazil nuts, starchy in consistency. Each fruit can have from a hundred to 500 seeds! They are boiled, baked or roasted, and sprinkled with salt. The taste is a cross between chestnuts and sweet potatoes. In Sri Lanka and Vietnam, the seeds are ground and processed into flour and noodles.
Another Miracle Fruit
Jackfruits are a great source of energy and fiber, as well as Vitamins B6 (pyridoxine), C and A. They’re rich in calcium, magnesium, niacin, iron, potassium and carotene. The nutty seeds, high in protein, are also packed with thiamine, phosphorous and riboflavin.
Because both the flesh and the seeds of this amazing fruit can be eaten, and enjoyed in a variety of ways — from snack to starchy staple to vegetable to dessert — one jackfruit could satisfy a small family’s meal requirements for an entire day. In fact, just the meat from a large unripe fruit can serve as a vegetable meal for a sizable family!
“It’s a miracle,” biotech researcher Shyamala Reddy of India’s University of Agricultural Sciences told The Guardian newspaper. “If you just eat 10 or 12 bulbs of this fruit, you don’t need food for half a day.”
So much of the jackfruit is edible that researchers at the Indian university held a two-day international symposium in 2014 to drum up awareness and encourage efforts in the production of jackfruit. The Indian government has, in fact, taken steps to promote the crop and amplify its marketing as a canned vegetable and processed food.
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Even researchers in the United States are looking at the fruit’s potential to replace staple crops in developing countries that face the risk of food insecurity due to crises like poverty, war and even weather changes.
Jackfruit is “an underutilized crop,” Nyree Zerega, director of the graduate program in plant biology and conservation at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden told NPR. Zerega explained that the tree is a perennial requiring little care compared to popular crops like wheat, rice and corn, which are seasonal and need significant irrigation and pesticides. In Sri Lanka, for example, the jackfruit is called “rice tree” because of its role in providing their communities much-needed food security.
There is an additional benefit for homesteaders: Jackfruit waste – or the stringy fibers surrounding the pods called “rags” — prove great fodder for goats, pigs and cows. The leaves from the tree are also relished by goats and cattle.
Jackfruit trees enjoy hot humid climates, and they can be grown indoors, although their size may prevent it.
In the United States, you can find fresh jackfruit at Asian and Caribbean markets. They usually sell them already cut in pieces and wrapped in plastic so you wouldn’t have to buy the whole thing. Canned young jackfruit, bottled ripe pods, crispy chips and other preparations are also available online and in specialty stores around the country.
If you fancy buying a whole fruit, note that processing can be a challenge. Jackfruit secretes a white, gummy latex that makes preparation cumbersome and messy. Wear disposable gloves and an apron to protect yourself, and line your work surface with newspaper to shield the counter top. Coat your knife blade and chopping board – as well as hands, if not using gloves — with cooking oil to make cleaning easier.
Have you ever grown or eaten jackfruit? Share your tips and advice in the section below: