Diners familiar with Indian kathal ki biryani, Vietnamese sinh to mit, or Filipino halo-halo may already be familiar with the jackfruit, that relative of the fig that can grow to an enormous size and smells either exquisitely perfumed or nauseating, depending on the person. "Jackfruit has been used as a meat alternative in Asia for hundreds, possibly thousands of years," says Daniel Staackman of Upton's Naturals, a vegan food company/cafe that sells pre-seasoned and pre-packaged jackfruit among its line of products. "And the texture speaks for itself."
Jackfruit has been steadily gaining international attention as a tree that is easily grown and drought-resistant, with very nutritious fruit that happens to bear a striking resemblance to meat when cooked. Every part of this native Southeast Asian tree can be used. In fact, green jackfruit, aka the "meaty" part of the fruit usually only available canned in the United States, is actually the entire fruit — rind, flesh, and seed — before it has had a chance to mature (or grow to up to 100 pounds).
Like Upton's Naturals, there are now several companies selling the pre-cooked and seasoned fruit as a meat substitute, with a rapidly growing market across the U.S. By marketing the young fruit as healthful vegan food, brands have found a way to use the fruit at early stages, when it is much easier to preserve and ship. And many restaurants and brands have recently started marketing jackfruit as a "vegan pulled pork," citing other vegan cooks and recipe developers as inspiration.
But while it might seem like this fruit — a far cry from slow smoked pig — came out of nowhere in the United States, its development as profitable product has been happening simultaneously in India, a country where (according to advocates and entrepreneurs) currently 80 percent of the jackfruit grown goes to waste. But how are groups in both countries — from agricultural experts to vegan chefs — developing the supply chain and market for this fruit? And could the jackfruit be key to fighting food insecurity worldwide?
The reason we weren't already eating jackfruit all the time is that jackfruit is difficult to work with. "A whole jackfruit is a commitment. They can be the size of a toddler," says cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, whose books Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and Asian Dumplings feature jackfruit recipes, albeit for the fully ripe fruit. The resin under the rind sticks to anything that isn't oiled, and gloves must be worn to break it down. Its smell when fully ripe is also too close to that of the infamous durian for many people.
Jackfruit is grown in many countries, but India — with a vegetarian population in the hundreds of millions — is the only one with a history of using the young fruit as a stand-in for meat, most often in stir-fries, curries, and a popular rice dish called kathal ki biryani. The Bengal word for the fruit translates as "tree mutton" or "the meat which grows on a tree." In northern India, it's known as Brahmin's meat, or "meat" for the revered portion of the Hindu population made of priests, teachers, and religious scholars. Because so many Indians are vegetarian and vegetarianism is a way of life, English chef Meera Sodha, who writes extensively about Indian cooking and Indian vegetarian cuisine for Western audiences, says jackfruit "is mostly used as a hero ingredient."
Indian agriculture journalist and jackfruit advocate Shree Padre says that in most of northern India it's gaining popularity, whereas for most of the fruit's history it was consumed in the country's south. And jackfruit curry is now becoming trendy at Indian weddings. "Poor families can't afford to make jackfruit curries for weddings. So, the 'poor man's fruit' of south India has become ‘rich man's [curry]' in north India." Mostly young green jackfruit is now consumed in India, and a very small percentage of people eat the ripe fruit.
Jackfruit can be found fresh in the U.S., but is usually available canned, sold by Asian brands, which has helped jackfruit recipes propagate widely on vegan blogs and restaurants over the last five years. Indian restaurants in the United States are most likely the source of inspiration for the now-trendy all-American barbecue jackfruit sandwich: stewing shredded canned green jackfruit in the generic American, region-less flavorful sauce we call "barbecue sauce." (Among vegan bloggers and chefs, the young fruit is used as a stand-in for seafood, as well, but that hasn't taken off as much in the general population, probably because the appeal of the barbecue jackfruit sandwich is the delicious sauce.)
Sometime around 2010 or 2011, vegan restaurants and blogs in the U.S. began to pick up jackfruit as a new "protein." Around that time, Kristy Turner of the blog Keepin' It Kind first had it a Los Angeles Indian restaurant called the Samosa House, which also sold it canned. She began to experiment, but by then, there were already recipes online; shortly thereafter she noticed it in more vegan restaurants, now that she was on the lookout. By this time, there seemed to be a feedback loop between vegan restaurants and recipe developers: whenever a new person tried it, they immediately shared with their audience. And those who tried it continued to spread the word because of it's uncanny resemblance to meat. As veganism becomes a more visible part of the American diet, long time vegans and new converts still look for ways to replicate old favorites, and jackfruit's texture and ease of preparation when canned makes it an obvious candidate to catch on quickly. It also doesn't hurt that it is soy and grain-free, unlike tofu and seitan, the other most popular and widely available substitutes.
Kristina Addington of the vegan meal delivery service and food truck V-Grits in Kentucky first had it around the same time at Sage Café in LA, in a pulled pork taco. She later recalled the experience because she wanted to do Southern vegan food when she launched her business — and barbecue jackfruit quickly became the most popular item on the menu. Staackmann first tried jackfruit in a curry at a Nepalese restaurant and then "It seemed like all of a sudden, about five to six years ago, there were jackfruit recipes all over the Internet and many vegan restaurants were offering it," he says. Annie Ryu, founder of the Jackfruit Company, another U.S.-based producer, was already developing her business in 2011 when friends started sending her articles about jackfruit.
Ryu learned about jackfruit on a trip to India, and the Jackfruit Company started with the idea to sell dried ripe jackfruit, but Ryu realized there was more of a market for the young fruit prepared like meat. They're now focused solely on meat alternatives. "We just see so much potential for what jackfruit can add to that space," she says. The Jackfruit Company sells pre-cooked, pre-seasoned frozen entrees in flavors like teriyaki, barbecue, Tex-Mex, and curry.
For now, the focus is on jackfruit as a readymade entrée for producers in the U.S., both because of demand for ease and added-value potential. "It's added a lot of excitement in the meat alternatives category in stores because it's a whole food, not wheat or soy-based, and a new idea to many consumers," says Staackmann, whose Upton's Naturals brand sells plain pre-cooked jackfruit, as well as barbecue, chili lime carnitas, and Thai curry flavored versions. Upton's processes, cooks, and packages jackfruit in Thailand, where it's grown, before being shipped to the United States. Now you can find the Jackfruit company and Upton's Naturals packaged jackfruit entrees in retailers across the country, and both canned and fresh jackfruit have been stocked at Whole Foods.
The jump from overabundance in India to fancy packaged meals in the States was not immediate. Ryu had to spend nearly three years developing her business and the supply chains in India. The jackfruit sector is still mostly unorganized there, with no consistent infrastructure and no assured market, resulting in a good percentage of the crop ending up unused (up to 80 percent, according to some sources). Processing or value-adding within the country is in its infantile stage.
Jackfruit grows naturally all over India, but is mainly foraged and the rest of the fruit goes to waste. But in southern India, for the last decade or so, there's been an effort to capitalize on the increasingly popular fruit, says Padre. "A movement is shaping up by farmers, small organizations, and more to get a fair price for jackfruit, to utilize it for many products, and to augment rural economy." The coastal state of Kerala is at forefront of the fledgling movement to create a market for jackfruit. According to Padre, a former finance minister of the Indian state launched a program to plant 10,000 jackfruit trees in his constituency.
One company buying up jackfruit to process and sell to Indians is Jackfruit365, founded by former Microsoft employee James Joseph. Joseph sees the fruit's potential as a nutritional meat substitute when green, and as a diabetic-friendly carb when slightly more ripe. For Joseph, jackfruit's potential is endless. His company freeze-dries the flesh of the just barely ripe fruit before distributing it. When rehydrated in water for just a few minutes, it's a chewy, pork-like ingredient. When soaked for longer and mashed, it has binding power that he sees as a boon to prepared foods. Joseph works with chefs to promote the product's use, and through this collaboration has developed a burger and kebab recipe using jackfruit; ones he claimed are remarkably similar to meat.
Joseph has plans to continue expanding Jackfruit365, with sights on jackfruit mash becoming the new "mashed potato" in the international market. Padre, the journalist, has a vision that would to promote "ready-to-eat prepackaged fresh fruit in cities including in north India," he says, "and diverting not-so-good table varieties as ready-to-cook vegetables, and to develop ground jackfruit seed as gluten-free flour for export." Both are hoping the sector will continue to grow and increase its own capacity to harvest and sell the fruit.
As the vegan diet becomes more mainstream, perhaps a pulled tropical fruit will find its way as the "plant-based" option for traditional smoked meats. But it remains to be seen if American carnivores will ever accept it as "barbecue" as easily as jackfruit curry caught on throughout India.
Emily Stephenson is a food writer and recipe developer based in New York City.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
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