Jack of all fruits goes global

Green, spiky and with a strong, sweet smell, the bulky jackfruit has morphed from a backyard nuisance in India's south coast into the meat-substitute darling of vegans and vegetarians in the West.

Part of South Asia's diet for centuries, the jackfruit was so abundant that tonnes of it went to waste every year. But now India, the world's biggest producer of jackfruit, is capitalising on its growing popularity as a "superfood" meat alternative.

It is being touted by chefs from San Francisco to London and New Delhi for its pork-like texture when unripe.

"There are a lot of enquiries from abroad. At the international level, the interest in jackfruit has grown manifold," said Mr Varghese Tharakkan at his orchard in Kerala's Thrissur district.

The fruit, which weighs five kilograms on average, has a waxy, yellow flesh when ripe and is eaten fresh or used to make cakes, juices, ice creams and crisps.

When unripe, it is added to curries or fried, minced and sauted.

In the West, shredded jackfruit has become a popular alternative to pulled pork and is even used as a pizza topping.

"People love it," said Ms Anu Bhambri, who owns a chain of restaurants in the United States and India. "The jackfruit tacos have been a hit at each and every location. The jackfruit cutlet - every table orders it, it's one of my favourites."

Mr James Joseph resigned as a director of Microsoft after spotting Western interest in jackfruit "gaining momentum as a vegan alternative to meat".

The Covid-19 crisis, he said, has created two spikes in consumer interest.

"Coronavirus caused a fear for chicken and people switched to tender jackfruit. In Kerala, the lockdown caused a surge in demand for mature green jackfruit and seeds due to a shortage of vegetables because of border restrictions," he explained.

Global interest in veganism was already soaring before the pandemic, buoyed by movements such as Meat Free Mondays and Veganuary and the business of "alternative meats".

Concerns about health and the environment - a 2019 United Nations report suggested a more plant-based diet could help mitigate climate change - have led to consumer interest in brands such as Impossible and Beyond Meat selling plant-based replications of chicken, beef and pork.

But people are also using substitutes long popular in Asia such as soy-based tofu and tempeh and wheat derivative seitan as well as jackfruit.

This boom has meant more and more jackfruit orchards have sprung up in coastal Kerala.

"You get a hard bite like meat - and like meat it absorbs the spices," said Mr Joseph, explaining jackfruit's growing popularity.

His firm sells jackfruit flour, which can be mixed with or used as an alternative to wheat and rice flour to make anything from burger patties to local classics such as idli. He worked with Sydney University's Glycemic Index Research Service to find out if eating the fruit has any health benefits.

"When we did a nutritional analysis, we found jackfruit as a meal is better than rice and roti (bread) for an average person who wants to control his blood sugar," he said.

India has one of the highest diabetes rates in the world and is expected to hit around 100 million cases by 2030, according to a study by The Lancet medical journal.

As global warming wreaks havoc on agriculture, food researchers say jackfruit could emerge as a nutritious staple crop as it is drought-resistant and requires little maintenance.

Mr Tharakkan has not looked back since he switched from growing rubber to jackfruit on his land and has a variety that he can cultivate year round. "When I cut down my rubber trees, everyone thought I had gone crazy. But the same people now come and ask me the secret of my success," he said.

In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, there is demand for 100 metric tonnes of jackfruit every day during the peak season, yielding a turnover of US$19.8 million ($28.08m) a year, said economics professor S. Rajendran of the Gandhigram Rural Institute.

But there is rising competition from countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand.

Jackfruit's new-found international fame is a massive turnaround for a plant which, while used in local dishes, has long been viewed as a poor man's fruit. Each tree can yield about 250 fruits a season. It is believed to have originated in Kerala, deriving its name from the local word "chakka".

Mr Tharakkan recalled that it was not unusual to see notices in private gardens asking people to take away the jackfruits for free because they were so plentiful - they would simply rot and attract flies.

While India's jackfruit growers - like the wider agriculture sector - have been hit as the nationwide coronavirus lockdown has led to a shortage of labour and transport, international demand shows no sign of slowing.

Mr Sujan Sarkar, the Palo Alto-based executive chef of Bhambri's restaurants, believes even meat eaters are becoming jackfruit converts.

He said: "It's not only vegetarians or vegans, even the meat-eaters love it."

AFP

"When I cut down my rubber trees, everyone thought I had gone crazy. But the same people now come and ask me the secret of my success." - Mr Varghese Tharakkan