With a changing climate, rising sea levels and a growing population, worldwide there’s a growing consensus (or perhaps fear) that our eating habits will have to change. Discussion has often focussed on protein sources, and media attention has been lavished on the idea of replacing conventional meats with insect protein or lab-grown alternatives instead to meet the demand. But, unpredictable wheat and rice harvests in recent years have shown that staple crops are at risk too. Green jackfruit from the tropics is cited as a potential solution.
Largely unheard of beyond its natural, tropical home, the jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit around. Spiky, knobbly and smelly, they weigh in at up to 35-45 kg (almost as much as person!) and thrive in the tropical climates of India and South-east Asia, as well as parts of Africa and South America. In fact, they grow so well that where they’ve been naturalised into parts of Brazil, the jackfruit tree is considered an invasive species. Inside its rugged exterior, the fruit’s thick white pith and latex-like sap protect the edible flesh that forms in capsules around almond-sized seeds.
When the jackfruit is ripe, its sweet flesh is treated just like any other tropical fruit might be, but it is while unripe or green, that this fruit shows its potential. The green jackfruit is neutral tasting and savoury, it’s starchy and high in carbohydrate (perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a close relative of the breadfruit) and contains plenty of extra nutrients like potassium, iron and calcium. While it hasn’t caught the attention of Western health foodists in the way quinoa, buckwheat and teff have been advocated, it’s better for you in that regard than traditional staples. Beyond its nutritional content however, of most interest is the jackfruit tree’s natural capacity for disease resistance and resilience in times of drought, making it a key crop for the future.
In its native India and South-east Asia, green jackfruit is treated like many other vegetables: rich curries and stews are common. Unfortunately though, it also suffers from a bit of an image problem. With rice widely available, jackfruit is traditionally seen as a poor man’s food, only relied upon by those for whom rice or bread is unaffordable. Similarly, Western fruits are more fashionable for sweet snacks, and for the growers it doesn’t command the same prices as other alternatives. While this may be beginning to change, for now, in India, jackfruit does have a place for those who abstain from meat for religious reasons, especially widows, where it provides a textural alternative, something that many in the West are cooking it for too.
Usually found tinned in Asian supermarkets (make sure to buy the stuff in brine or water, not the sweet fruit in syrup!), green jackfruit has found fame as a trade secret of vegan cooking. After a short simmer, jackfruit can be broken apart into thin strands, and that large surface area helps them mop up a flavoursome sauce. Vegan and vegetarian cooks have made good use of it, eager to keep up with the current trend for pulled meat. The mainstream food media is taking note now too, with mentions in E! and many newspapers – in the UK, you can even buy it through the online supermarket, Ocado.
Its capacity to provide a cheap and stable source of energy however, is what is prompting the Indian government to invest in jackfruit as a crop however. An expansion of processing plants is going to increase the output of jackfruit flour, noodles, breads and snack foods (as well as the prepared tinned fruit to do away with the difficult preparation). All of that could easily mean jackfruit popping up in our food here too – tucked away in ingredients lists of gluten-free and other pre-packed goods I would expect – as the alternatives could become dearer and scarcer.