Never eat anything bigger than your head: Such generally sound advice must be tossed out the window when it comes to jackfruit, the exotic produce that happens to be #trending with some confusion.
In the States, it was once available solely as a canned product in Asian markets, but now whole fresh specimens weighing 10 to 25 pounds are stacked like spiky green submarines in mainstream American grocery stores. The fruit’s sheer mass and forbidding exterior tend to ward off potential takers, but those who have tasted its innards are forever fans.
Things don’t get easier once you cut the fruit open. A milky, hard-to-remove sap is released with each cut. Jackfruit can contain varying amounts of sweet, yellow flesh pods embedded in a tough core, depending on the level of ripeness. And its hard, ecru-colored seeds evoke fat garlic cloves in shape and size — solid as rocks, yet once boiled and peeled, they are beloved for their potato-chestnut hybrid appeal.
Tasters at The Washington Post found notes of pear, pineapple, banana and papaya in the ripe fruit, commenting favorably on a texture they identified as having more body than mango and a satisfying moisture level (read: not too sticky or juicy).
“Jackfruit has been in America for decades, and it’s the biggest produce story over the past four months or so,” says Melissa’s Produce spokesman Robert Schueller. Three years ago, the nationwide distributor was selling a few cases per year. “Now we sell 250 cases per week,” he says. It has long been carried in Asian supermarkets (whole and in shrink-wrapped portions), where shoppers understand the beauty of slumping, less-than-perfect hulks.
Media buzz might be due to jackfruit’s growing status as a plant-based meat substitute, low in protein — a selling point for those avoiding high-protein foods — and rich in nutrients such as calcium and potassium. In 2014, an NPR report touted an initiative in India to promote jackfruit as an answer to solving food insecurity, as the fruit grows abundantly in tropical climates and offers versatility.
It took Chicago-based Upton’s Naturals about four years to source the right kind of jackfruit from Southeast Asia for its March 2015 product launch in flavors of Thai curry, barbecue and chili lime carnitas.
But how does jackfruit’s “Juicy Fruit gum” taste profile, as some call it, square with savory applications? It doesn’t.
“We use young, green, unripe jackfruit,” says Upton’s co-founder and vice president Nicole Sopko, “that hasn’t developed sweetness or seeds. People say its cooked texture is like that of shredded pork or poultry — and really, it’s been cooked [savory] for hundreds of years by different cultures in Southeast Asia.”
However, the heffalumps spotted recently on sale ($1.99 per pound) at Whole Foods Market on P Street NW, grown in Mexico, are already on their way to ripening sweet, says Nongkran Daks, a Chantilly, Va., restaurateur who grew up in her native Thailand with a jackfruit tree in the yard.
“Don’t buy green here and expect to eat it right away,” she says. Buy ripe, which means looking for a yellowish skin with spikes that have softened, and a shape that yields under gentle pressure — not unlike the midsection of someone who needs core work at the gym. A sure sign of ripeness is the fruit’s distinctive, musky fragrance. Or buy green and firm, then let the fruit sit on the counter for several days until those telltale signs take over.
Daks prefers the quality and smaller size of jackfruit harvested in her country over what’s exported from Mexico. Mexican cooking show host and cookbook author Pati Jinich says the fruit is grown in her country but is hard to find in all but the most tropical regions, such as Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula.
“You can’t really get it in Mexico City; I didn’t know it when I was growing up,” Jinich says. “Mexicans like it sweet. I’ve had it now in smoothie-type morning drinks called licuados and pureed, stirred into creamy gelatins or mousse-y desserts.” Another popular way to prepare jackfruit in Mexico is to cook it down past the compote stage so it’s effectively candied, she says — an ancient way of preserving lots of fruits there. Daks says that in Thailand, people like to eat chunks of jackfruit with sticky rice shoved into the empty seed holes. Filipino journalist and food blogger Betty Ann Besa-Quirino makes ice cream with sweet jackfruit and a dish of coconut cream and shrimp with the unripe fruit.
If you are curious enough to haul a whole jackfruit home, you should be able to find it just about year-round. Whole Foods’ mid-Atlantic region has carried it in some stores for the past three years. Melissa’s Produce features it in late September and October.
Figure on about three pounds of core/waste in every 20-pounder. Daks offers been-there advice about how to handle it:
■ Let a green head ripen on the counter; back home, she says, cooks sometimes hasten the process by removing the fruit’s stem and inserting a clean piece of wood in its place.
■ First, coat your gloved hands and a long, sharp knife with food-safe oil — cooking oil spray works well — to protect against that stubborn latex sap.
■ Cover the work surface with something disposable.
■ Cut the fruit in half lengthwise and then lengthwise again into quarters; the cut skin and core will release the sap. Re-grease the utensil after each cut.
■ Cut out the solid white core and discard any fibrous filaments around the fruit pods.
The flesh should be thick and yellow. It can be eaten and frozen raw; the seeds pop out with ease.
■ If you manage to find young green jackfruit, cut away and discard the peel, then cut into chunks; boil in water until tender.
“In Thailand, we use lots and lots of newspaper to wipe off the latex and for removing the core,” Daks laughs. “It’s the best reason to keep it around.”