When Annie Ryu first encountered a large, spiky orb called jackfruit, she was perplexed. “I thought it was a porcupine,” she says.
But when she ate it prepared in a curry, she was amazed at how meat-like it was in taste and texture. That was in 2011, when she was traveling in southern India as a premed student helping community health workers improve prenatal care. By 2014, she had waylaid her medical career to start The Jackfruit Company.
For years the fruit—native to India and part of the Moracaea family that includes breadfruit, figs, and mulberries—has been popular with vegans, who use the unripe fruit in dishes like tacos, enchiladas, and pulled “pork” barbecue sandwiches, as well as in authentic Indian curries, like ghassi, made with ground coconut, black chickpeas, and spices like red chili, coriander, and cumin.
But now there seems to be a jackfruit zeitgeist that parallels market demand for plant-based meat alternatives. According to the Nutrition Business Journal 25 percent of U.S. consumers decreased their meat intake from 2014 to 2015, and meat alternative sales nearly doubled from $69 million in 2011 to $109 million in 2015.
Even though industry advocates like Michele Simon, the executive director of the newly formed Plant Based Foods Association, says that they’re “still trying to get consumers to wrap their heads around tofu and tempeh,” that isn’t stopping Ryu and several companies, including Upton Naturals, Native Forest, and Hain Celestials, from launching jackfruit products.
Chef Hari Nayak, a cookbook author and the culinary director of Café Spice, grew up in India with a jackfruit tree in his backyard. He’s developed jackfruit recipes for clients like Whole Foods Market. Here in America, he says, “It’s gone from the exotic into the mainstream.”
It’s possible for jackfruit to be eaten ripe like a sweet fruit or used in desserts—it has a banana-pineapple hybrid texture and a taste likened to Juicy Fruit gum, with a slightly acrid smell. But it’s the unripe fruit that Indian cookbook author Julie Sahni says has the meaty mouthfeel that provides substantial satiety. “One of the things people miss in vegetarian cooking is the textural pleasure that comes from chewing something with some oomph and that feels like it will stick to the bone,” she says. The other benefit, she adds, is its versatility. Since the unripe fruit is starchy and savory, it takes on the flavors of the spices it’s cooked with.
Companies like The Jackfruit Company and Upton’s Naturals provide precooked, unflavored convenience packs or already spiced varieties like barbecue, curry, and Tex-Mex. And that’s a good thing, because whole jackfruits can weigh on average about 35 pounds and can get as big as a hundred pounds.
These giants can be found in Asian produce markets or even at health-food stores, but cutting a jackfruit is no easy feat. Los Angeles-based chef Kajsa Alger, executive chef and co-owner of the mostly vegan and vegetarian restaurant Mud Hen Tavern, says, “Breaking down a jackfruit can be more labor intensive than butchering a piece of meat.” It’s messy too. The fruit oozes a sticky white substance, and cooking preparation is a time-consuming, multistep process. “Basically, they’re big and uncooperative,” Alger says.
She prefers jackfruit canned in water because it provides the consistency necessary for a restaurant kitchen. She’s chopped it for use in Chinese dumplings as a pork substitute, caramelized it in a peanut hoisin sauce for a Vietnamese bahn mi, and braised it like pork for a carnitas-style burrito. “It’s so neutral, you can do anything with it.”
Jess Kolko, a registered dietician who works for Whole Foods, emphasizes that jackfruit is a good source of fiber. “We generally only get one-quarter of the fiber we need daily,” she says. “The nice thing about jackfruit is that it’s a plant-based fiber from a whole food and not a fiber additive. It’s also high in potassium, which helps muscle function, hydration, and to maintain healthy blood pressure.“ Kolko also notes that what’s particularly exciting about jackfruit is that it’s an unprocessed whole food that, unlike some processed soy and tempeh products, has an ingredient list you can actually pronounce.
In spite of all the recent jackfruit boosting, whether or not the American market will embrace this South Asian staple will depend on marketing and education. But entrepreneurs like Ryu hope the appeal to conscious consumers goes beyond their meat cravings. “The jackfruit story is uniquely powerful because we need to resolve the fact that meat is the second largest contributor to global warming, second to the energy industry,” she says. “Now we can help reconcile that with something that grows on trees, that’s organic, and that already has a built-in supply chain from these very prolific and sustainable trees.”