Jackfruit: The jack of all feasts

From feeding a thousand souls to becoming the poster boy of going earth friendly in food, the humble jackfruit is proving to be a gamechanger.
The panasa podapitha of odisha. Image: alka jena.
The Panasa Podapitha of Odisha made with jackfruit. Image: Alka Jena.

When homemaker Ancy Mathew began working on her jackfruit cake where she used the pulp as the main ingredient of the batter, it was to win a culinary competition. Little did Mathew, a resident of Kottayam, know then that this innovation would be her next calling. Nine years on the homemaker is a certified trainer, member of the Jackfruit Promotion Council and Jackfruit Consortium, the owner of Jackfruit India, and an unprecedented expert in everything jackfruit, including a 15-odd dishes jackfruit sadya that uses every part of the fruit/vegetable including the leaves, rind, and the seed. In fact, Mathew’s culinary repertoire today includes close to 200-plus unique dishes including the Chakka Pradhaman, a jackfruit pudding also called the queen of Kerala desserts.

Mathew isn’t the only one who has invested in jackfruit, a plant that was valued in ancient times as much for its wellness benefits as its ability to grow anywhere and feed a village with just one fruit. Recent times have seen brands like Jackfruit 365 and RTE foods like Wakao curating products that have brought phansa to the fore. Joining these foodpreneurs in this foray of reinstating the oblong, porcupine-like fruit to its erstwhile status of Tamil Mukkani — the Chola Empire’s holy trinity of fruit — are the likes of Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, Michelin-starred Chef Srijith Gopinath of Ettan, and culinary anthropologist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai and Chef Vikas Seth of Sriracha, whose efforts at reviving the fruit have made jackfruit mainstream in the culinary world again.

Cleaning jackfruit is a labour-intensive process.
Cleaning jackfruit is a labour-intensive process.

Suggested read: Hilton India and Wakao Foods present a sustainable foods showcase

An ancient miracle fruit

Incidentally, jackfruit, the current vegan king of the West, has had an association with India that dates back to 4000 BC. An ancient native of southern India, jackfruit, a fruit that was initially grown by the Munda tribes, was much revered not only for its ability to grow anywhere, feed a small village, but also for its wellness benefits. In fact, the fruit — rather the tree — finds mention in the Charak Samhita and Susruta Samhita as a magical antidote that in its raw state increases vata and kapha, and in its ripe form is known to benefit vata and pitta. In fact, it’s inherent properties as a natural coolant rich in fibre, potassium, carbohydrates, vitamin B6 and C, made phansa, also referred to as chakka in Malayalam, a popular fruit for drinks as well. By that one doesn’t mean a simple juice or lassi, but wines. In fact, jackfruit’s ability to ferment well helped in popularising the fruit across India, and the sura community that made it a part of the soma-making culture. Tripura, in fact, has an indigenous whisky called chuwak that uses jackfruit and its leaves in the recipe.   

Jackfruit curry made with hemp seeds.
Jackfruit curry made with hemp seeds.

The multi-functionality of the jackfruit tree that could flourish in any climate is the numero uno reason for its presence across mainland India, where it soon gained popularity as another raw ingredient or as a sweet indulgence — the latter was more likely given the muskmelon-like aroma the fruit emanates once it begins to ripen. In Odisha, for instance, where the tree was planted by the British who fell in love with its heart-shaped ripened pulp, it was the seed and its flour that became popular before the abundance gave the tribal area of Mayurbhanj access to the unripe fruit too.

Jackfruit is a versatile and contemporary ingredient, as can be seen in this pulled jackfruit mantou.
Jackfruit is a versatile and contemporary ingredient, as can be seen in this Pulled Jackfruit Mantou.

Likewise was the case in Assam, where the abundance of seeds led to the creation of a special dish called Kothal Guti Lau Pat Khar. In Bihar, the unripe fruit became the go-to fruit especially during the summers. Thanks to its interesting texture and taste, and its ability to take on a variety of masalas, the fruit soon became an integral part of many community cuisines like that of the Konkan Saraswat Brahmins where their Anasa Phanaschi Bhaji — jackfruit and pineapple cooked together in coconut, tamarind and jaggery paste — is a wedding special. Likewise, for the natives of Coorg who made Chakkekuru Paji (chakke, meaning jackfruit, and paji, meaning chutney) by boiling jackfruit seeds and then grinding them with onions, coconut, and bird’s eye chilli. Goans turned the ripened fruit into Dhonas, a cake made of jackfruit pulp and roasted rava (semolina) baked on a stove top. Such was the popularity of the fruit that, by the first century AD — as per the ancient text Maduraikanchi — it had become the most profitable commodity in the market.

The fall and rise of jackfruit

The chef's special jackfruit croquettes are a big hit at byg brewski.
The chef’s special jackfruit croquettes are a big hit at Byg Brewski.

A fruit that rose to become the Holy Trinity of one dynasty (Chola) would eventually lose its way to another dynasty (the Mughals). Food lore has it that the fruit was instantly disliked by Emperor Babur who found its fragrance overwhelming. While jackfruit remained a novelty during the reign of Akbar and later Aurangzeb, both ardent vegetarians, where kathal was turned into a kebab and a biryani where the kathal seed was replaced with a date, its popularity in later years waned due to the labour-intensive prep process.

Jackfruit regained its country-wide popularity again during the colonial era, albeit this time as a novel vegetarian ingredient that could rival meat. “Of course, the rise of jackfruit as an important part of Bengali cuisine, and later that of Armenian and other communities,” says Chef Gorai, “could also be attributed to the widow community that developed a whole repertoire of dishes in and around a fruit that was now described as ‘better than mangsho’.”

From feeding a thousand souls to becoming the poster boy of going earth friendly in food, the humble jackfruit is proving to be a gamechanger.
According to Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Enchorer Torkari is a must-have on Bengali New Year.

“While the new reputation did little,” continues Chef Gorai, “to help jackfruit regain its earlier spot, it did make chakka relevant in the changing dining scape, where it was used in popular ways like making bora or fritters from both ripe and raw pods, and some classics like Echor Chingri, Echor Kosha and Echorer Torkari, a must-have on Bengali New Year.”

A wide array of dishes can be made with jackfruit, says chef sandeep sadanandan.
A wide array of dishes can be made with jackfruit, says Chef Sandeep Sadanandan.

In the south, however, jackfruit continued to hold its own, says Chef Sandeep Sadanandan, Head Chef at Byg Brewski Brewing Company, “partly due to its association with sadya, especially the Onam sadya, and partly due to the large array of dishes that were made from jackfruit including chutney, pachadi, kurma, puttu, payasam and idli.”

For the rest of India, says Chef Seth, “jackfruit’s introduction in the mid-1900s was more as an alternative, although seasonal, to meat. In fact, it was the post-independence resurrection of jackfruit thanks to large cultivation where jackfruit earned the moniker of being the ‘vegetarian mutton’.”

In fact, the locavore specialist admits being among the many whose introduction to jackfruit was as the “the other meat”. However, says Chef Seth, “the closeness in taste and texture of jackfruit to chicken and tender meat made it an instant favourite.”

Suggested read: How Sairaj Dhond of Wakao is transforming the Indian mock meat industry

The revival and reinvention

While it is true that jackfruit’s moment in the limelight was driven by being the new vegan superstar of the West, its culinary resurrection for chefs including Chef Seth, who popularised phansa with his pulled jackfruit taco, was a result of childhood nostalgia.

Chef srijith gopinathan loves recreating childhood favourites with tender jackfruit.
Chef Srijith Gopinathan loves recreating childhood favourites with tender jackfruit.

As a result, most of the earlier innovations were revivals of classic dishes presented differently, including kebab, fritters and the all-popular kathal ki sabji, pulao and biryani. For Chef Srijith Gopinathan this new-found interest in his legacy fruit meant recreating some of his own childhood favourites like Idichakka Thoran made with tender jackfruit, Chakka Masala and Chakka Pazham Pori made with the ripened pod. For Chef Gorai, it was bringing some of the lesser-known jackfruit dishes from the mining towns to the table. Two such gems are the miner’s favourite Echorer Kosha and the innovative Echorer Dalna.

Chef vikas seth of sriracha popularised jackfruit with his pulled jackfruit tacos.
Chef Vikas Seth of Sriracha popularised jackfruit with his pulled jackfruit tacos.

The initial success of the revival, says Chef Seth, “led to more chefs not only discovering traditional dishes but reworking the plate to present a different version of jackfruit that was now seen as a planet-friendly meat alternative.” A perfect example of these are Chef Seth’s Mantou and Chef Sadanandan’s Jackfruit Croquettes. Inspired from the traditional taler bora and pori made in different parts of Coorg and Kerala, these croquettes, says the Mangalorean food specialist, “are like crisp, sweet donuts with a delicious gooey pulp inside that goes well with a contrasting relish. The beauty of this dessert-cum-appetiser is the textural play of the ripened jackfruit pod.”

Another innovative take that has gained popularity is the jackfruit burger patty. The brilliance of jackfruit, says Chef Subhayan Das, “is how it adapts to flavours — Indian and international — and the textural play. Depending upon the fruit you use, you can easily manipulate it to create dishes that can be deceptive in their palate appeal.” A fine example of this is Chef Das’ signature vegan tray, where everything from the patties to the chips uses some part of the tropical fruit.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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