Native to south India, the fruit of the tropical species Artocarpus heterophyllus aka Jackfruit has been in the spotlight like never before. Whether being touted as an alternative to meat or as a vegan sensation or as the new tofu, jackfruit has become a consistent feature while discussing the “plant-based” eating scene. A fruit that has been an integral part of South Indian cuisine since decades, jackfruit today has spread to other parts of India, South east Asian countries like Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia and far flung places like Florida and even Australia.
Unique fruit high on nutritional value
A rather unwieldly fruit that is not the easiest to pluck and cut, jackfruit has the distinction of being the largest tree borne fruit in the world. Belonging to the family of fig, mulberry and breadfruit, the green hued spiky surfaced fruits consist of several fleshy, pulpy yellow bulbs which are joined together in the centre. Each of these bulbs bears an oval brownish seed that has a covered by a slightly stiff sheath. With a distinctive fruity smell when ripe, the inside of jackfruit is fibrous and parts of the fruit secrete a white milky latex which in fact makes the process of cutting and separate the bulbs quite challenging. It is common practice is south India to apply coconut oil on the hands as well as the knife before ‘embarking’ on the elaborate ritual of dismantling the fruit!
A treasure house of vitamins and minerals, jackfruit is rich in antioxidants and high on protein and fibre content. It is known to be a great source of vitamin C as well as one of the few fruits that is the rich in the B complex family of vitamins. Rich in minerals like potassium, magnesium and iron, jackfruit is believed to have a positive effect on blood sugar, cholesterol levels and immune system of the body.
One of the most striking characteristics of jackfruit is its versatility of use and the fact that every part of the plant and fruit is really useful. While the wood of the tree is used to make furniture, the fruit itself lends itself to various cooking methods. “Whether in curries, chips, papad, fritters, dumplings, pancakes or desserts, jackfruit is a highly revered fruit in the south and is no wonder the state fruit of Kerala and Tamil Nadu” says Shilpa Holla, a home maker from Mangalore. A fruit that is often reserved for special and celebratory occasions, there are festivals dedicated to jackfruits in coastal towns like Udupi, Thiruvananthapuram and even Mysore recently.
While the fruit in its raw form has a neutral taste, it is enhanced with the goodness of spices like red chillies, coriander and fresh coconut and used to prepare curries and sambhar. Known as “kathal” in the north, raw jackfruit is often used in briyani. The seed is edible too and tastes best when roasted over the fire and had with salt. This is an all-time favourite evening snack in southern coastal towns during summer. The season also means a time where one prepares and stock up on jackfruit chips, papads and appadams.
While the ripe fruit is enjoyed just like that, it is also finely sliced and ground to make payasam and halwa. Another speciality in the south is “Mulka” which are sweet fritters made by grinding a mixture of rice, jaggery, fresh coconut and sliced ripe jackfruit and then deep frying it. A variation of this recipe is also used to make jackfruit dosas aka pancakes.
Jackfruit leaves: phytonutrients galore
Cooking in leaves has been an age-old culinary technique. “Steaming food in leaves was earlier a technique used to protect the food from direct contact with moisture, heat, dirt and at the same time helped in trapping the flavour and aroma within” says Chef Ashish Bhasin, Executive Chef, The Leela Ambiance, Gurugram. And when the leaves in question are jackfruit leaves, the health benefits are quite substantial too. A panacea for toothache, ulcers, diabetes and osteoporosis, jackfruit leaves are often used to steam dumplings in the south. “The leaves are rich in calcium and help in preventing premature ageing. They are used in traditional medicine because the natural ingredients are very safe for the body. Compounds contained in jackfruit leaves are also believed to treat even cancer” says Chef Sinu Vijayan, Chef Incharge – The Gateway Hotel, Mangalore.
The leaves are woven into baskets and are used as receptacles to prepare savoury dumplings which is again a festive food and considered highly auspicious when prepared as an offering to Lord Ganesha. One portion raw rice and half a portion of urad dal are soaked, drained and ground. The mixture is allowed to ferment after which the batter is poured into the leaf baskets and steamed.
This story originally appeared in The Tribune.