Jackfruit is an everyday food if you’re in some parts of south and southeast Asia—India, Bangladesh, Thailand. The starchy unripe fruit can be cooked in curries. Ripe jackfruit is sweet and complements sticky rice and ice cream. American vegan-cooking blogs, on the other hand, will find unripe jackfruit compared to “vegan pulled pork.”
Jackfruit is a good source of protein, potassium, calcium, and iron. “It’s a very versatile fruit,” says Nyree Zerega, a plant biologist at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden who studies “underutilized” crops. “It can be your main meal and your dessert all in one.” The seeds can be roasted and eaten, or ground into flour; even the timber from the jackfruit tree is useful. And jackfruit grows exuberantly in subtropical and tropical climates. Leela Punyaratabandhu, proprietor of the Thai-cooking blog SheSimmers, says that many people in Thailand grow up with two or three jackfruit trees in their backyard.
The only thing: “You’re not supposed to sit under it,” Punyaratabandhu says. Individual jackfruit can grow up to 100 pounds—it’s the largest tree-borne fruit in the world. When we talked, Punyaratabandhu said she’d recently picked up a jackfruit of her own. “I just brought home a 20-pounder,” she said. “It’s still sitting on my kitchen counter.”
WHY’S IT SUCH A BIG DEAL?
Climate change. One of the promises of jackfruit is that, because it grows in tropical and subtropical areas, it’s more optimized for the warmer world that we’re barreling toward, whereas current staple crops like wheat will become harder to grow. Drought and heat waves are already affecting global yields on maize, wheat, and corn, and those effects will continue to accelerate. And it’s helpful that this nutritious, bountiful fruit grows well in places like India, which is home to about one-quarter of the world’s undernourished people.
HOW DO YOU COOK IT?
“You treat it like you would any other starch—give it the flavor you want it to take on,” says Zerega about the unripe fruit. Green jackfruit is also a bit stringy, which accounts for the pulled-pork thing. The mature fruit yields a number of discrete pods, which only have to be deseeded in order to be eaten.
Punyaratabandhu thinks unripe jackfruit tastes sort of like artichoke hearts—so much so that when she first came to the U.S. and felt nostalgic for jackfruit curry, she’d use canned artichoke hearts instead. The ripe fruit, which has a bright, banana-ish flavor, can take the place of mango atop sticky rice (or the pods can be stuffed with the rice) or it can be served over ice cream. “The best way to enjoy [ripe] jackfruit is right out of hand,” Punyaratabandhu says. Jackfruit leaves aren’t much on their own, but food can be wrapped in them for cooking, in the manner of banana leaves. “In my family we’d make fermented rice all the time,” she says. “My grandmother would use the jackfruit leaf to wrap the sticky rice while it’s fermenting.”
The Jackfruit Company, seizing on its Next Big Thing potential, has released a line of meals in a pouch that capitalize on the meaty texture of jackfruit with flavors like barbecue, Tex-Mex, teriyaki, and curry. They’re available in stores across the country, including Whole Foods and Wegman’s. We tried a few in the office recently, and while they were good, no one will soon be mistaking them for pulled pork.
WHERE DO I GET IT UNPREPARED, THOUGH?
Asian markets, mostly, though you can also find it at the occasional major store: Zerega says she saw some jackfruit randomly make an appearance in supermarkets in suburban Chicago recently, and just as quickly disappear. It comes canned and fresh. And vendors will often sell it in pieces, rather than whole, so take heart: You can leave the front-end loader at home.
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