Whatever Happened To ... The Plan To Jazz Up Jackfruit?

Sep 3, 2017
Originally published on September 15, 2017 1:41 pm

Before "Goats and Soda" was born, I wrote a story for our sister blog, "The Salt" about the world's largest tree fruit. The jackfruit can grow as big as 100 pounds. It's a good source of protein, potassium, vitamin B and fiber. Plus: It's easy to grow in tropical climes. There was even a symposium devoted to revving up production and marketing. So how's that going?

I knew it was time to do a follow-up story on jackfruit when I went shopping in Trader Joe's and saw 20-ounce cans of "Trader Joe's Green Jackfruit In Brine." For only $1.99!

Which raises the question: Who in America is buying canned jackfruit in brine?

Before I answer that question, let's flash back to 2014. For my story, I talked to food researchers who were gaga over jackfruit as a nutritious food for people in low-income countries who can't always get nutritious food.

It's not that people weren't eating any jackfruit. It's long been popular in South and Southeast Asia, both in its sweet ripe and bland unripe forms. It's used in everything from curries to desserts.

But it's "an underutilized crop" in the tropical-to-subtropical climate where it thrives, says Nyree Zerega, director of the graduate program in plant biology and conservation at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. So the challenge was to promote it to a bigger audience in its native countries.

In 2017, the market for jackfruit is surging. James Joseph runs a company in India called JackFruit365 that is dedicated to the proposition that everyone should eat jackfruit. He sells freeze-dried jackfruit, packaged jackfruit and jackfruit flour. He says his market is people on the paleo diet, vegans and gluten-free folks. He pushes it as a meat substitute and also a grain substitute, suitable for curries.

In Kerala, the epicenter of jackfruit production in India, Joseph says that 400 tons of jackfruit a day is exported vs. 200 tons a day just a couple years ago.

And people are buying trees to cultivate the fruit for both home use and sale.

Dr. P. Rajendran, associate director of research at Kerala Agricultural University, confirms that "in India, the demand is increasing due to enhanced public awareness. Already farmers have started commercial planting of jackfruit in Kerala. Its impact on local economy and job creation will be visible within a couple of years."

And then there's the American audience. The jackfruit sold in Trader Joe's is immature — harvested at about 4 1/2 months. The green jackfruit hasn't developed its sugars.

While ripe jackfruit is sweet and has a kind of funky aroma, the green jackfruit has not developed its sugars. It's a blank canvas, just waiting for ... barbecue sauce.

Yes, in the United States, jackfruit is being pushed as the next big meat substitute for vegetarians.

Two U.S. companies are selling heat-and-serve pouches of pre-seasoned, prepared green jackfruit. Upton's Naturals offers Chili Lime Carnitas Jackfruit and Bar-B-Que Jackfruit. The Jackfruit Company sells BBQ, Curry, Tex-Mex and Teriyaki Jackfruit.

Whole Foods, Safeway and Sprouts Farmers Market are among the chains that carry the prepared jackfruit.

And how are they doing? Neither Upton's nor the Jackfruit Company would provide data on sales but both are upbeat about consumer interest. Jackfruit was dubbed a "rising star" by the Google report on most searched-for food items in 2016.

"The product resonates with our shoppers, who are increasily looking for product attributes like plant-based, vegetarian and vegan," says a spokeswoman for Sprouts.

And the jackfruit importers are sending money into the global economy.

"We work directly with 350 farming families in India," says Annie Ryu of the Jackfruit Company.

Daniel Staackmann of Uptons, who first encountered jackfruit in a Nepalese restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, works with a factory in Thailand. While he's upbeat about jackfruit, he does admit that it "hasn't turned into coconut water yet" so there's probably not "a big impact" on the jobs market in Thailand.

Of course the big question is, how does green jackfruit taste?

I purchased a can of Trader Joe's jackfruit and turned it into fake pulled pork (see recipe).

I would totally have believed it was pulled pork, but maybe that's because I don't eat pork so I have no expectations. I thought the dish was chewy in a good way and very flavorful.

I brought some into work and asked people to sample and weigh in.

"It tastes and looks like meat," said a guy who described his palate as "not very discerning."

"This is no pulled pork," said a dissenter with a discerning palate, noting that the jackfruit did not have a fattiness that lingers in the mouth.

It was variously compared to mushrooms and artichokes. Everybody agreed it was better than other meat substitutes in terms of the nicely chewy, sinewy texture (which is responsible for its Bengali nickname, "tree goat," since goat is a sinewy meat).

Overall, the barbecued jackfruit was pretty popular. "I would not have guessed that was a fruit," said one person. "It's palatable and healthful and it tastes good."

"It's so good I'm gonna have one more bite," said another.

And for me, a non-pork eater, it's the "pulled pork of my dreams," as one colleague put it.


Freelance reporter Chhavi Sachdev, based in Mumbai, India, contributed reporting to this story.


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