Giant, thorny green jackfruits dangling languidly from tree trunks are a sure sign of summer in South India. By May, there will be huge piles of jackfruit along the roadside for sale.
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Jackfruit (Artocarpus heteropyllus) belongs to the mulberry family and is the largest edible tree-grown fruit in the world. This tree is native to tropical India, and from there it spread to Southeast Asia, East Africa and beyond. Today, it is widely grown throughout the tropics. Though planted in Hawaii prior to 1888, it is still rare in other Pacific islands. In the 19th century, jackfruit cultivation made modest inroads into Florida.
The jackfruit tree has a strong solid trunk with many branches and grows up to 50 to 60 feet. The giant fruit is produced along the main trunk of the tree, and even on the surface roots, as it is too heavy for the branches to support. The fruit grows up to 3 feet in length and weighs up 75 pounds. The fruit has a dark green rind dotted with thorny hexagonal spines. Inside, the rind is a layer of thick white pith, beneath which are layers of yellow, fig-like fruit pods that contain seeds.
Jackfruit is traditionally classified into two types, one that can be eaten fresh and the other that requires cooking. It continues to ripen after harvest. The ripe fruit can range from firm, crisp and easily eaten out of hand, to soft and stringy. Its fragrance is an amalgam of aromas with hints of apple, pineapple, banana, with a touch of honey.
Jackfruit’s uses go beyond food
This tree is a multipurpose species providing food, timber, fuel and fodder, as well as medicinal products. Despite its sheer size, formidable thick and thorny skin, strong and assertive smell and sticky quality, jackfruit has wider appeal in tropical countries where it grows.
It is a nutritious fruit, rich in vitamins A, B and C, potassium, calcium, iron, proteins and carbohydrates. The seeds are edible and nutritious and are a good source of carbs and protein while simultaneously being low in fat.
According to ayurveda the medicinal properties of jackfruit vary during various stages of its development. The jackfruit is also widely used in Chinese folk medicine.
Jackfruit is cooked into both savory and sweet dishes throughout Asia. Unripe jackfruit is cooked as a vegetable, and when ripe, it is a tasty fruit. Green jackfruit is deep-fried to make chips and is also cooked into curries. Ripe fruit is served for dessert and is also cooked into jam along with ghee and jaggery. Jackfruit jam cooked with coconut milk makes an excellent pudding.
When unripe, jackfruit flesh is remarkably similar in texture to meat, making jackfruit an excellent vegetarian substitute for meat. The seeds are also used in cooking by either boiling them or roasting them. Roasted jackfruit seeds have a taste similar to roasted chestnuts.
Removing the export barriers
In southern India, jackfruit is grown on small plots without sprays or fertilizers, but it is seldom marketed beyond a farmer’s village. Commercial cultivation of jackfruit is still at a primitive stage in India. Without wider markets, a major portion of jackfruit in India never reaches consumers. Another reason for this waste is the lack of commercial processing facilities. In recent years, Krishi Vigyana Kendras (centers for agricultural knowledge) have been set up to train farmers in jackfruit production technology with special emphasis on processing and creating value-added products.
Four years ago on her first day in Bangalore, India, Harvard pre-med/anthropology graduate Annemarie Ryu had her first taste of jackfruit from a sidewalk vendor. A handful of golden yellow slices, served up on a piece of newspaper were so delectable, she was hooked. She was so fascinated by the taste and nutritious quality of jackfruit she is now working on promoting the fruit in India and presenting it to the Western world. She believes that the fruit, properly marketed, has value beyond taste, nutrition, and versatility.
Ryu started Global Village Fruits, a for-profit social enterprise building international supply chains for under-recognized, underutilized super fruits. “At the core of this company is how it would help farmers. Our primary social aims are centered on poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment, and international nutrition and food security,” Ryu said.
Global Village fruits has conducted 12 processing training programs or farmers and housewives in rural South India and has formalized partnerships with a co-packer, a warehouse and a distributor who meet the company’s supply chain requirements and have social and environmental missions.
Ryu realized that jackfruit in its dried forms can be imported with little red tape. She plans to introduce jackfruit to the United States through a diverse range of products. Initially, she is concentrating on dried jackfruit for gourmet stores and wheaty-tasting jackfruit seed flour for bakeries. Dried jackfruit strips make an excellent snack and jackfruit seed flour, rich in protein and vitamins and gluten-free, can be used in baked foods.
Global Village fruits plans the launch of its first product, dried ripe jackfruit, in Boston-area Whole Foods supermarkets in August. Ryu hopes products such as these will spur an American jackfruit market.
Top photo: Jackfruit. Credit: Forrest Starr and Kim Starr