When I first came across a pulled “pork” sandwich stuffed with jackfruit, I was utterly horrified.
Shredded jackfruit smothered in barbecue sauce is the complete antithesis to the sunny yellow bulbs of fruit I ate fresh out of hand called nangka, and the spiced curries I devoured on family trips to Indonesia.
As exotic-fruit mania crescendos with the jackfruit’s newfound status as trendy meat substitute in the West, its provenance is getting left in the dust.
In an April 2019 article, The Guardian writer Zoe Williams calls jackfruit a “spectacularly ugly, smelly … pest-plant” which people consumed “only if they had nothing better to eat.” She goes on to imply that its current popularity rests entirely on the rising vegan trend.
Williams couldn’t be more wrong.
On the contrary, a good portion of the world—think Southeast and South Asia—has adored jackfruit for centuries.
Native to the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia, the jack tree belongs to the Moracaea family that includes breadfruit and figs. It grows easily in the wild, and while it’s being touted as a vegan miracle in the West, jackfruit is an abundant food source for millions in Asia, not just vegans.
Nutrient-dense jackfruit is packed with calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, and potassium. This whole food is also rich in plant-based fiber and free from saturated fats or cholesterol. It isn’t, however, comparable to beans and tofu in the protein department.
When I first came to the U.S. in the early 1990s, I could only find jackfruit at Asian markets, and never fresh. Two decades later, companies like Upton’s Naturals and The Jackfruit Company started “discovering” the wonder food that is jackfruit. Now you can buy shelf-stable jackfruit doused in barbecue sauce, teriyaki, or curry at your local grocery store. You can even find fresh jackfruit at some Whole Foods Markets these days.
Jackfruit is a gargantuan green fruit—mature fruit can weigh up to 100 pounds—covered in tiny little spikes. Like papaya, it’s sold in two stages of development: young and unripe, or mature and ripe.
They are used very differently.
Young and unripe jackfruit is your fruit of choice if you’re looking for a savory meat substitute. It’s pale green and starchy, and meat-like in texture. Treated like a vegetable, unripe jackfruit is very versatile and absorbs the flavors of the spices it’s cooked with. Other than seasoned and prepackaged, jackfruit is also available canned in brine with an Asian label slapped onto it, and more recently under the Trader Joe’s brand.
While vegans in the U.S. seek unripe jackfruit as a meat substitute, writer Madhushree Ghosh points out,“No Indian looks for meat substitutes if they’re vegetarian. That’s a western concept.”
In South Asia, jackfruit is both an everyday ingredient as well as used to make celebratory dishes, especially when feeding a crowd.
The dish that comes to Ghosh’s mind is echorer (jackfruit) shobjee. “This is considered a very upper class delicacy in Bengal,” Ghosh says. In this hearty curry, the unripe jackfruit “is robust, fibrous and has the texture of (shredded) chicken.” No wonder jackfruit is also called gaach patha, or "tree goat" in Bengali. Cook it right and it tastes like mutton.
Ghosh remembers her Baba teaching her to cut a whole jackfruit. “The concept of cutting the unripe jackfruit is a challenge,” she says. “The resin between the seeds is sticky and gets on clothes—just a messy process. But to be able to cut the pieces, slice the seeds and soak them in salt water before cooking needs a teacher to master it.”
In other parts, many traditional jackfruit recipes are far from vegan.
Indonesian-style jackfruit stew, called gudeg, is sweet, sweet, sweet—a trademark of Javanese cooking. Jackfruit is braised for hours with coconut milk, palm sugar, and spices like coriander, galangal, salam leaf, and served with chicken, boiled eggs, and krecek (buffalo skin crackling).
Leela Punyaratabandhu, the mastermind behind She Simmers (a Thai home cooking blog), highlights tam khanun as an iconic northern Thai dry curry. In addition to ginger, garlic, shallots, and julienned makrut lime leaves, the boiled jackfruit is combined with minced pork or pork rinds.
Betty Ann Quirino‘s father grew langka, the Tagalog name for jackfruit, on their farm in the Philippines.
“The trees were huge and the langka fruit were enormous,” Quirino remembers.
Quirino’s mom cooked unripe jackfruit often as a vegetable side dish or an entree in itself. Sometimes with coconut milk and bird chiles, sometimes adobo-style. One dish she remembers fondly is langka kadios, jackfruit cooked with pork cubes and soft peas only available in the Visayas region.
“My mother made use of langka a lot for daily meals and merienda (snacks),” she tells me. “I think she even tried to pickle some langka. That's how much fruit we had!”
When it comes to merienda and desserts from other cultures, mature jackfruit is used. The sweet, golden-yellow bulbs have a slightly rubbery texture, and they’re sold skin-on in halves or quarters at Asian markets. This is the form you eat out of hand or toss into sweet drinks and desserts. For convenience, jackfruit is also available canned in syrup.
However, this form may be a little too close in smell and taste to jackfruit’s tropical cousin, the durian, for some.
Quirino, who authored How to Cook Philippine Desserts, Cakes and Snacks, says her mother would boil jackfruit strips in syrup until soft before adding to halo-halo or fill lumpia wrappers with langka and plantains for turon ng saging.
Jackfruit has traveled the world and back. Langka smoothies are a popular refreshment in Vietnam, and the national drink of Indonesia, es teler, is milky and sweet, studded with jackfruit slices, avocado bits, coconut flesh, and jellies. In Kerala, where every household has a jack tree, the fruit is used wherever possible. Ripe jackfruit preparations include milkshakes, juices, sherbet, and sweets like halwa and barfi.
Truth be told, I doubt my mother fed us jackfruit because it’s a wonder food, but rather because cooking and eating it is part of our culture. As Ma likes to say, “We’re Indonesian. We eat Indonesian food.”