Most tropical fruits make us think of smoothies and bikinis and suntan lotion and rum drinks, but the hulking jackfruit, before it’s broken down, is not a carefree fruit. It is unwieldy and menacing: If you had a particular knack with Sharpies, you could draw a scary mouth and some eyes on one and it would look like a small blob of a monster gearing up to eat you. It’s the world’s largest tree fruit—an average specimen weighs between thirty and fifty pounds—and is covered in a pebbly green skin, often shaped like an irregular kidney bean.
A member of the same family as the fig tree, jackfruit is native to the land and the cuisines of India and Southeast Asia. A ripe jackfruit is slightly soft and gives off a sweet, strong scent—it is, occasionally, compared to durian, thanks to its outward appearance and the strength of its aroma. The flavor of the ripe fruit, though, is pure sweetness. As with a melon, the best place to feel for ripeness is at the fruit’s base (it should be soft), where it once connected to a branch. When ripe, jackfruit usually becomes dessert: either eaten on its own, or served atop Thai coconut rice instead of the common layer of mango, or even turned into ice cream.
When unripe, the fruit is most often used in savory dishes, like curries, where you would otherwise use meat. In the U.S., it can be found transformed into a sort of pulled-pork alternative and layered in tacos or barbecue sandwiches. In southern India, you can find strips of unripe jackfruit fried into salted, barely sweet chips, a street snack that’s far more flavorful than your run-of-the-mill potato chip and best eaten straight out of the bag.
Also edible—and nutritious!—are the seeds, which hide inside each little drupe. They’re encased in a white skin that make them look like an Italian white bean when unpeeled; boil and peel them, and they soften into a tropical alternative to your standard legume. Noris Ledesma, the curator of tropical fruit at Miami’s Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, likes to use them as a burrito filling, but a quick Google search will turn up a number of jackfruit-seed curry recipes, too. In India, a group of women has begun turning these seeds into flour and the fruit into a batter for noodles.
And, though farmers in Florida have been growing jackfruit for more than a century, and a few jackfruit products are available across the United States, they’re still mostly sold in specialty markets and have yet to truly catch on. So what’s keeping us from turning into full-on jackfruit fiends? According to Ledesma, size and appearance are both significant factors. “The way it looks can really intimidate people,” she told me, “and people who are not very adventurous look at it and say, I’ll give it a pass.” Breaking one down is a real process, too. Ledesma recommends slicing into it with a large knife coated in olive oil—this makes getting through the fruit’s naturally occurring, very sticky latex—a whole lot easier. Once you’ve hacked your way in, you’ll find a woody inedible stalk amidst a network of fleshy yellow drupes, which look something like corn kernels the size of kiwis. Between the drupes lay the rags, little white wisps that can also be cooked but don’t provide much in the way of flavor.
It remains to be seen whether jackfruit will really take off in the U.S., but a few pioneers are doing their darnedest to make this enormous fruit at home on our tables. If you live in a major city, you can find it canned in syrup, usually at Asian grocers. Trader Joe’s has begun selling their own spin on jackfruit chips, which taste a little like circus peanuts, but crunchy. In Florida, the fruit is cheaper than mangoes—about $1.50 a pound when bought from farmers. Ledesma tells me that you can find them in Chinatown in New York, too, where many Indian families purchase them for weddings.
The newest development in the domestic market—and likely the most promising—is happening at a vegan meat-alternative company in Chicago. For a decade now, Upton’s Naturals has been producing and selling various flavors of seitan, the increasingly popular wheat-based meat alternative. Last year, they introduced a new line of products: ready-to-eat, preseasoned, young (read: not sweet) jackfruit. According to cofounder Daniel Staackmann, it seemed like a natural fit alongside their existing products: an all-natural meat alternative with a bare-bones ingredient list. They currently offer two flavors: chili lime carnitas and barbecue, the sorts of flavorful shreds you’d layer into a salad or wrap, or atop a particularly virtuous pile of brown rice and kale.
While Staackmann tells me that the reception has been positive, jackfruit isn’t likely to overtake tofu’s crown any time soon. Partially because it’s hardly known in the American market, but also because it’s challenging to process on a commercial level. “It was really hard to find a supplier that would take us seriously,” Staackmann remembers. “We contacted everyone that was already canning and they were like, Americans don’t want that, so we’re not interested.” Finally, they found a company in Thailand willing to process the jackfruit for them. Upton’s doesn’t disclose the process it uses to prepare its jackfruit, but it’s essentially a question of removing the latex and keeping the fruit from oxidizing. (According to Ledesma, young jackfruit is usually boiled multiple times to draw the latex out.) So scaling could become an issue: “If the idea really takes off,” Staackmann told me, “it could be problematic if we get huge orders and can’t get enough materials” to fill them.
Staackmann thinks it will be ten to twenty years before jackfruit is anywhere near common on American plates. But in Miami, Ledesma and her team are working to breed a smaller specimen that would weigh as little as a pound. It would certainly be less intimidating, unless, of course, an enemy chose to throw one at you. Until that day comes, we can still make our jackfruit curries and desserts and love them with the special sort of affection that the scarcity principle inspires.