The underutilised and unappreciated jackfruit is on its way to become a global star
Earlier this year, the World Bank and United Nations warned that rising temperatures and erratic rainfall had reduced yields of wheat and corn and could lead to food wars within the decade. Around the world, since, eyes have been turning to the jackfruit to save the day. High on nutrition, cheaper than wheat and corn, and relatively easy to grow in arid climates, it has been held up by researchers as an alternative food of the future. “I think it could play a much more important role in diets than it currently does, and [become] a staple,” declared Dr Nyree Zerega, a plant researcher at the Chicago Botanic Garden who has studied the fruit in her home country Bangladesh. According to her, the fruit not only boasts of high nutritional value, it is also very versatile— apart from the fruit itself, both raw and mature, its seeds are also edible. So too is the timber of the jackfruit tree.
You have probably seen the jackfruit— giant coarse bulbs with a thick musky smell hanging unapologetically from tree trunks across India. Native to the Subcontinent, it is the world’s largest fruit and is grown commercially chiefly in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala, but can be found throughout the country. Despite being described as a super food, 75 per cent of India’s produce is wasted, according to estimates. For a fruit that has higher amounts of Vitamin C and B-complex than common fruits such as the apple, banana and orange, that is unfortunate. At just 95 calories in half a cup, it is good for dieters as well. A 2006 study published in The African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines says eating jackfruit leaves one’s blood sugar levels lower and that the fruit’s latex has antimicrobial properties. Studies published in the European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences and several other reports suggest the fruit’s wine is rich in antioxidants.
Jackfruit has none of the problems that other substitute foods have, and can thus be used as a healthy addition to one’s diet. Says Shikha Vohra, a Delhi-based dietician, “For example, when you are eating soy instead of meat or even nutri nuggets, you know that you’re replacing your preferred choice with a healthier option. The fruit itself is so delicious that you will not mind eating it in any form. I personally recommend it to anybody looking to lose weight.”
Dr KN Gowda, former vice-chancellor of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, is of the view that if used properly, the fruit can solve the hunger problem in the country. “It is an extremely versatile and nutritious fruit that is undervalued here but has a potentially big market in Europe and America that is just starting to shape up.”
He is not the only one who is vouching for it. In his book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, KT Acharya explains that the jackfruit’s ancient name, ‘panasa’, can be traced to a pre-Sanskrit language, Munda. Buddhist texts bear references to the fruit as early as the fourth century BCE, and some Buddhist priests still use extracts of the fruit to colour their robes. The fruit is also used for various traditional remedies. The leaves and roots of its tree are routinely used in the treatment of skin disorders and it is a well known natural laxative. Shyamala Reddy, a biotechnology researcher at the University of Agriculture, calls it a ‘miracle fruit’, saying that if one eats 10 or 12 bulbs of it, one need not consume anything for another half a day.
To top it all, it is enormous in size—a single fruit can weigh up to 45 kg. It now grows in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and is also a popular fruit in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, apart from many African countries, where it is grown for commercial purposes.
Despite its global appeal, the fruit remains a hard sell in most of India, with only two or three commercial plantations in operation. This, however, might start changing with its rising popularity among yuppies and health freaks, thanks to how ‘cool’ it has become lately in trendy parts of the US after Hollywood’s influential media house E Network declared it a super food early this year. Jackfruit tacos, enchiladas, salads and desserts have popped up on menus in California, and this trend is on its way to India.
Even though the fruit’s exotic appeal is yet to make a mark on mainstream India, trend-spotters are now surfacing as self- professed jackfruit evangelists. Take, for example, James Joseph. In late 2012, this 43-year-old former Microsoft director took a year off to write a memoir, but found himself drawn to something completely different—the jackfruit. His curiosity of the fruit stemmed from his memories of growing up in the small town of Aluva, Kerala: his maternal uncle would often speak highly of it, saying that if one had a jackfruit tree in the backyard, one would live at least 10 years longer than everyone else. “For the first time in my life, I had enough time on my hands to research the fact, so I decided to dig deeper,” says Joseph, who soon stumbled upon research findings. He discovered that the fruit, which is rich in fibre, had a number of beneficial properties, the most important being its ability to ward off cancer. “The fibre in the fruit acts as a bottle brush for one’s intestines,” he says.
While working in the US, Joseph would often eat steak accompanied with mashed potatoes and gravy, and wonder if he could replace it with mashed jackfruit curry. Not only would it be high in fibre, it could also reduce starch consumption. “As a young working professional,” he says, “I was obsessed with my health, yet couldn’t make the right choices because of the lack of options available. I knew I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what.” Then one evening at a dinner at The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, he asked chef Hemant Oberoi why chefs didn’t use jackfruit in their kitchens as a vegetarian replacement for meat, as traditionally done. “He told me that if he asked his sous chef to clean a jackfruit for him, he would throw it at him and refuse to do it, as not only is it extremely sticky and a pain to clean, it is also smelly and seasonal.” Not convinced and still sold on to its health benefits, Joseph decided to do some jackfruit research of his own.
Joseph then started going to chefs and requested them to make some jackfruit dishes on his behalf. “My first experiment was the jackfruit burger. Though it tasted excellent, I discovered the cold storage chain in the country would be the weakest link in the supply chain.” So he dropped the idea and still kept working on various alternative recipes using the fruit. Help came in the most unexpected form. Almost a decade ago, Joseph had met Dr Koshy, ex-president of Thai Carbon Black who had explained to him the dehydration process of green pepper for the spice export business. He contacted Koshy’s son, who explained how the fruit could be freeze-dried.
And that set the tone for his passion from then on.
Freeze drying means the removal of all moisture from a material by first freezing it. More dried food can be carried than wet food of the same weight, and it also has the benefit of a longer shelf life since it does not spoil as easily. For the jackfruit, this meant a new lease of life, especially in these modern times where the fruit was often thought to be too cumbersome to cook in small kitchen spaces.
Also, the process would not only eliminate the smell and stickiness, but also turn it into a hip, easily procurable product that was both malleable to taste and of high nutritional value. Says Joseph, “I come from a village and I have worked in a city. I know the pressures of corporate life. When I was living in the city, I was constantly aware of my health choices. I wanted to be healthy, but didn’t have the time for it. So to imagine working people trying to work with jackfruit… it’s like giving them a live chicken. It is just too problematic.”
Freeze drying reduces the weight of the fruit by 82 per cent. You can store the pack in room temperature for 365 days and chefs can configure-to-order any dish at the time of consumption since it takes just 20 minutes to rehydrate the fruit. “When I started experimenting with freeze dried jackfruit, the once supply- chain expert of i2 and Warwick University within me quickly recognised [how the] cost of freeze drying offsets the cost of transportation, storage and inventory by a big margin.”
That is when Joseph launched Jackfruit365.com, a website that supplies the fruit 365 days a year to health enthusiasts across kitchens in the country. The website came at a time when the rest of the world was just waking up to the wonders of this unremarkable looking fruit that has long been ignored in India. “I now have regular orders from women working in metros looking at healthier food options,” says Joseph.
The fruit is eaten in three main forms at varying stages of ripeness. The first is what is popularly known as kathal in Northern India, which is tender jackfruit; it usually weighs an average of 3 kg. The second is the sweet fully ripe fruit, which usually weighs 10 kg. And the third is the mid-stage, by when the seed is fully formed and the fruit’s flesh is like a potato’s—bland, absorbent of a wide variety of spices and therefore useful in the preparation of a variety of dishes.
Chef Siddiq, executive chef, Taj Club House, Chennai, has also experimented with freeze dried jackfruit. He says that the fruit is not a favourite ingredient with chefs across the country because it is not easily available in the market, and even when it is, cutting and cleaning it is too laborious. “But now that we have an easy way to access it, I’ve seen a lot of chefs use it,” he adds, “I have made marmalade and some savoury items. Other chefs have used Mughlai recipes in which they have replaced the meat with jack and it has worked just fine without anyone being the wiser. The best stage for me is the mid- stage, in which the fruit acts like a bland potato. It’s great from a chef’s angle because one can flavour it any which way you like. The scope for it is endless because not only is it nutritious, but also very tasty. It could get very popular.”
Dr Gowda, who is also an evangelist of the fruit, has been lobbying for a plant to make processed products of jackfruit for over a decade now. On a visit to Delhi earlier this month, he offered Ashmita Kaur Badal a jackfruit drink. She confessed to having it for the first time, but was sold on it the moment she took a sip.
Jackfruit promotion has other things going for it as well. There is an annual jackfruit conference, for example, to spread awareness of the nutritional benefits of the fruit and the products it can be used to make. From jackfruit flour to wine, it is all exhibited there. There is now also an international symposium on the fruit that started in Bangladesh in 2012 and was held in India this May. The meet’s discussions covered such subjects as the fruit’s genetic diversity, cultivation, value addition and marketing strategies. About 100 scientists, 300 jackfruit cultivators and 50 entrepreneurs participated in the event. It was accompanied by an exhibition of elite jackfruit varieties and genotypes, value-added products and processing machinery.
So, even if Indians keep ignoring this fruit, the world has started to take notice of it, and it may not be long before it becomes one of the country’s hottest items of export.