It is the definitive story of the ugly duckling, a fruit that won the lottery. Five years ago, the jackfruit was simply a spectacularly ugly, smelly, uncultivated, unharvested pest plant native to India. Some people did eat it, but only if they had nothing better to eat. Kerala alone removed 35 crores (an Indian measure of 10 crores, used mostly for, true, rupees, people, and jackfruit) a year. Last year, however, Kerala exported 500 tons of the material, which will increase to 800 tons in 2019.
It’s not the strangest plant someone has ever put in a can (which would be ackee, which tastes like scrambled eggs), nor is it the tastiest canned item so low in calories (which would be hearts of palm), but it has the market cornered. vegan, and therefore the world, however. Pinterest named it one of the hottest food trends of 2017, so it should be out of style by now (remember the peach donut?). But as long as veganism is on the rise, this gross-looking lump of fiber (fat, spiky, and green, he could have been animated for a small role in Monsters, Inc) will be its star.
“The jackfruit that we eat in these large quantities is harvested and canned unripe.” Photo: Suriyawut Suriya/Getty Images
I found it first in a Starbucks wrapper. Now you can get it everywhere from Pizza Express to supermarkets. Vegan restaurants probably have a claim as early adopters, but it took off so quickly that there isn’t much to it. That wrap was a mistake anyway, because jackfruit has no flavor to speak of: it’s all in the seasoning, and global coffee chains cater to the blandest common denominator. It tasted of nothing, in other words: nothing mushy, floury.
Before we go on any more adventures with the pony, spoiler: we may end up liking it a bit, a note on why it doesn’t taste like anything. A ripe jackfruit is, as the name suggests, a fruit, not unlike a mango, too sweet to be used as a meat substitute. The jackfruit that we eat in these large quantities is harvested and canned unripe. The texture, which is its big selling point, is artichoke-like (globe, not Jerusalem), with flake-off leaves that look a bit like meat after very slow cooking. Hence all the photos on Instagram. The best way to experience a shredded jackfruit burger with slaw and mayonnaise (vegan) is to look at a picture and then eat something else.
Sorry, that was cynical. Basically, there are three ways to cook jackfruit at home. The first, like the previous one, is cooked to make shredded jackfruit. Properly spiced, it will become “fake pork” or the base of a curry, depending on the spices. I made a basic BBC recipe for pulled jackfruit, which was very easy and fairly quick, although the jackfruit takes on a carrion-like appearance after about 20 minutes of braising; I found it quite disgusting. There was a phase in the ’90s when everyone was dieting and we all used loads of hot paprika in everything, to feign indulgence, but you could always taste the non-fat goodness underneath and there was a pervasive watery feeling of having been cheated on. it was like that (jaca is quite low in calories: 95 per 100 g). If unindulgent virtue isn’t your thing, you really have to figure out how to make up for it in the sauce.
“The best way to experience a pulled jackfruit burger with slaw and (vegan) mayonnaise is to look at a picture and then eat something else.” Photography: Brent Hofacker/Alamy
The best idea I came across was Pollen + Grace’s jackfruit zucchini pot, basically a mild green curry. My lord thought the texture of the crumbled jackfruit was almost meaty: there was something stringy about it that you don’t normally get from fruits or vegetables. I disagreed. There is dissonance between how it looks and how it breaks down – it’s never chewy enough to satisfy your teeth. I kept wanting to put bread under it.
Method two: make it into a burger, roll it in panko or similar, and fry it like a burger. This was the breakthrough for its “inventor”, James Joseph, who was working at Microsoft in Mumbai when he thought it was a shame no one ate this giant, exploding fruit. Grinding the seeds into a flour and coating the meat resulted in a burger that was “much crispier than McDonald’s aloo burger,” he said (first thought, obviously: I’d love to try an aloo burger at McDonald’s). There are now tons of recipes for jackfruit “crab cakes”, “burgers”, and “dumplings”. You have to take the nomenclature with a pinch of salt, because it will never taste like crab or beef, and a handful of salt has to be added.
Third idea: you know when you’re eating tacos or something like that and there’s a base mulch, usually some kind of ragu, and you put all the interesting stuff (pickled cabbage, jalapenos, tomatoes and good stuff) on top of it? Jackfruit can serve as a mulch. Just make sure you have plenty of tabasco.
Think of the jackfruit as a triffid: they don’t even talk about growing it. It just is, everywhere.