Real Food Encyclopedia | Jackfruit
Jackfruit, a large tropical fruit that grows on a tree known as a jack tree (or jackfruit tree), is part of the same botanical family (Moracaea) as the fig and breadfruit. For centuries it was consumed mostly in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but in recent years it has become more popular and widely known across the globe as a vegetarian meat substitute, thanks to its ability to imitate the texture of meat and offer a real nutritional bang for its buck. The fruit has a pungent smell and tastes sweet, sort of like a combination of a mango (though more mellow), a pineapple and an overripe banana.
While most jackfruit is grown in Asia and South America (and consumed locally or processed and shipped around the world), it can thrive in Hawai’i and South Florida, as well as around the Caribbean.
Fun Facts about Jackfruit:
- Jackfruit is the largest fruit borne by any tree, growing up to 35 inches and 60 pounds.
- Jackfruit is a “multiple fruit,” which means it is made of multiple flowers that have united to form a single fruit.
What to Look for When Buying Jackfruit
Fresh jackfruit are large, green, spiky and, when ripe, have a slightly acrid odor. Jackfruit are green when underripe and greenish-yellow to brownish-yellow when ripe. Underripe green fruit have a solid sound when tapped, while ripe fruit have a hollow sound. If you’re looking for the fruit to use in a savory preparation, choose one that is not yet ripe. If you are interested in using it for a sweet preparation, look for a ripe jackfruit.
Sustainability of Jackfruit
Jackfruit trees are considered fairly sustainable overall. The trees are robust and not very susceptible to pests, which means they do not require a lot of pesticides to grow. But commercial jackfruit production will use some pesticides, so look for certified organic jackfruit, if possible.
Jackfruit trees require relatively little water, around 116 gallons for one pound of fruit.
In the US, you can find fresh jackfruit in Hawai’i and South Florida in the summer months into early fall.
Jackfruit trees flourish in tropical climates and are most widely grown in India (more in the South than the North), where they are so prevalent in backyards that during peak season, jackfruit are sometimes left on neighbors’ doorsteps (or left to rot on the ground). They are also grown commercially throughout South and Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Malaysia are top importers), Jamaica and Colombia. As the fruit has risen in popularity in the past decade, both in India — where it’s seen as a way to cheaply and healthily nourish hungry populations — and abroad — where it is prized as a fashionable and tasty meat alternative — production has increased.
Be prepared for the task ahead: opening jackfruit and getting the flesh out can be difficult. The fruit are heavy, hard to cut, and make a sticky mess, which is one of the reasons people might opt for the canned flesh instead. Once the fruit’s flesh has been removed, each aril can be prepared depending on how you plan to use it. When used as a meat substitute, the flesh is often shredded to mimic shredded meat, but the fruit can also be chopped to be added into soups and stews.
Keep fresh jackfruit at room temperature for up to five days or in the refrigerator for up to six weeks.
Jackfruit is incredibly versatile: delicious when underripe or ripe, raw or cooked, and enjoyed in both sweet and savory preparations. When it’s underripe, it’s used more like a vegetable, made into stews, curries (Kerala style or Jamaican style) and stir-fries. When ripe, it’s enjoyed in fruit salads, preserves, ice creams and cocktail syrups. The seeds have their own uses as spices or snacks. In Kerala, where it is the state fruit, it is made into every possible permutation of food imaginable, from fritters to milkshakes to pickles.
You can explore preparing it as a meat substitute in dishes like these jerk tacos or these BBQ sliders. While jackfruit as a meat substitute is newer in Western countries, it’s been commonly used this way in South Asia for hundreds of years.
You can start recipes with a fresh jackfruit, or, if you’re in a part of the world or country where the fresh fruit is not available, you may use canned or frozen.
One of the reasons vegetarians and health-conscious eaters flock to jackfruit is its nutritional profile. It has an unusually high protein content for a fruit and contains a wide array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It also has a nice amount of fiber and a low glycemic index (it won’t raise your blood sugar). In addition, when you use it as a meat substitute, you are eating a whole, unprocessed food, unlike many other meat imitations.
Top photo by Nudda/Adobe Stock.