It’s enormous, green and knobbly, and has foodies across the world drooling with delight. So what is it – and where can you get it?
Late last year, after 18 years of litigation, a senior government official in Kerala, south-west India was given a prison sentence after being convicted of theft. The object he stole was government property, and it was so large he had to have it cut up to get it home. A piece of art, perhaps? A precious metal? Actually, it was a 40-year-old jackfruit tree, and, once you’ve tasted its fruit, you begin to understand why he did it.
To say the jackfruit is big is an understatement. It is the largest tree-borne fruit on the planet – it isn’t unusual to come across beasts weighing up to 35kg in South America and South-east Asia. And it has been hailed as a “miracle crop” because of its size, and resistance to pests and drought. And its nutritional credentials are also impressive: researchers have suggested it could replace wheat, corn and other staple crops that may come under threat because of climate change.
Once you get through its tough, green, knobbly exterior, you’re hit with a faint whiff of onion, sticky sap and odd looking seed pods that taste like a cross between a pineapple and a pear. So far, so fruity. But what really sets the jackfruit apart is what it can do to savoury dishes, especially its ability to imitate pulled pork after several hours on the hob.
Entertainment magazine E! cited it as a “hot new vegan ingredient” after spotting it taking pork belly’s place in baos (steamed buns) at Susan Feniger’s Street Food in LA. In London, vegan street-food and supper-club contingent Club Mexicana uses it in burritos and tacos to delicious effect. It’s their most popular dish by far, and suppliers are struggling to keep up with demand. Cook and owner Meriel Armitage says that customers often think it’s meat and are “always amazed it isn’t pulled pork”. She learned about the ingredient when working at one of London’s oldest vegan cafes. “It has been used for years by veterans of the vegan scene, but it has been kept a bit of a chef’s secret”. Pulled jackfruit is made from the younger fruit – “green jackfruit”, widely sold in tins and, thankfully, much easier to carry home from work than a bad smelling lump the size of a child. Meat substitutes are 10 a penny these days, ranging from gluten based seitan, to soy-based tofu, to the wide variety of disturbingly realistic meat-flavoured Quorn products on offer. But jackfruit wins hands down. This all-natural, non processed ingredient has fibrous flesh that can take on almost any flavour – green jackfruit can replace carnitas in tacos, braised beef in burritos, spiced lamb topping for flatbreads.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, although, with jackfruit, that can prove difficult when the eater harbours deep suspicions about its meaty appearance. One host on American network WISH-TV refused to believe his barbecue jackfruit slider was vegan, and, through mouthfuls of sandwich, called the guest chef who prepared the dish a liar.
Get hold of a few cans – you can find it in Asian food stores and the world-food shelves in many big supermarkets – and give it a try. (But go for the green jackfruit, not the kind in syrup.) And if you happen to share dinners with an anti-vegetarian, they never have to know.
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