In­dia’s ‘su­per­food’ jack­fruit goes global

Kuwait Times - - Front Page -

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 the South Asia’s diet for cen­turies, jack­fruit was so abun­dant that tons of it went to waste every year. But now In­dia, the world’s big­gest pro­ducer of jack­fruit, is cap­i­tal­iz­ing on its grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity as a “su­per­food” meat al­ter­na­tive — touted by chefs from San Fran­cisco to Lon­don and 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,” Vargh­ese Tharakkan tells AFP from his or­chard in Ker­ala’s Thris­sur dis­trict.

The fruit, which weighs five kilo­grams (11 pounds) 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,” Anu Bham­bri, who owns a chain of restau­rants in the US and In­dia, ex­plains. “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!” James Joseph quit his job as a di­rec­tor at Mi­crosoft af­ter spot­ting Western in­ter­est in jack­fruit “gain­ing mo­men­tum as a ve­gan al­ter­na­tive to meat”.

Jack of all fruits

The COVID-19 cri­sis, Joseph says, has cre­ated two spikes in con­sumer in­ter­est. “Coro­n­avirus caused a fear for chicken and peo­ple switched to ten­der jack­fruit. In Ker­ala, lock­down caused a surge in de­mand for ma­ture green jack­fruit and seeds due to short­age of veg­eta­bles due to border re­stric­tions,” he ex­plains. Global in­ter­est in ve­g­an­ism was al­ready soar­ing pre-pan­demic, buoyed by move­ments such as Meat Free Mon­days and Ve­gan­uary, and with it the busi­ness of “al­ter­na­tive meats”. Con­cerns about health and the en­vi­ron­ment — a 2019 UN re­port sug­gested adopt­ing more of a plant-based diet could help mit­i­gate cli­mate change — mean con­sumers are turn­ing to brands such as Im­pos­si­ble and Be­yond Meat for plant-based repli­ca­tions of chicken, beef, and pork.

But they 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 the coastal state. “You get a hard bite like meat — that’s what is gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity and like meat it ab­sorbs the spices,” com­ments Joseph.

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.

Joseph worked with Syd­ney Univer­sity’s Glycemic In­dex Re­search Ser­vice to es­tab­lish 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 adds. 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.

ʻSe­crets of suc­cessʼ

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. 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 smiles. In Tamil Nadu and Ker­ala alone, de­mand for jack­fruit is now 100 met­ric tons every day dur­ing the peak sea­son yield­ing a turnover of $19.8 mil­lion a year, says economics pro­fes­sor S. Ra­jen­dran of the Gand­hi­gram Ru­ral In­sti­tute. But there is ris­ing com­pe­ti­tion from coun­tries such as Bangladesh and Thai­land. Jack­fruit’s new­found in­ter­na­tional fame is a mas­sive turn­around for a plant that while used in lo­cal dishes, has long been viewed as a poor man’s fruit. Each tree can yield as 150-250 fruits a sea­son.

In Ker­ala, where it is be­lieved to have orig­i­nated, de­riv­ing its name from lo­cal word “chakka”, Tharakkan re­calls it was not un­usual to see no­tices in pri­vate gar­dens ask­ing peo­ple to take away the fruit for free be­cause they were so plen­ti­ful, they would sim­ply rot and at­tract flies. And while In­dia’s jack­fruit grow­ers — like the wider agri­cul­ture sec­tor — have been hit as the na­tion­wide coro­n­avirus lock­down causes a short­age of labour and trans­port, in­ter­na­tional de­mand shows no sign of slow­ing. Su­jan Sarkar, the Palo Alto-based ex­ec­u­tive chef of Bham­bri’s restau­rants, be­lieves even meateaters are becoming jack­fruit con­verts. He adds: “It’s not only veg­e­tar­i­ans or ve­g­ans, even the meateaters, they just love it.

—AFP photos

This photo shows Jack­fruit 360 di­rec­tor James Joseph speak­ing dur­ing an in­ter­view with AFP in Kal­ady, some 46 kms from Thris­sur in the south In­dian state of Ker­ala.

Vargh­ese Tharakkan har­vest­ing a jack­fruit at an or­chard at his Ayur jack­fruit farm.

Vargh­ese Tharakkan pos­ing with ripe jack­fruit.

A worker at Vargh­ese Tharakkan’s Ayur jack­fruit farm pre­par­ing a jack­fruit dish.

Vargh­ese Tharakkan pre­par­ing ripe jack­fruit at an or­chard at his Ayur jack­fruit farm.

Vargh­ese Tharakkan pre­par­ing ripe jack­fruit.

A worker at Vargh­ese Tharakkan’s Ayur jack­fruit farm dis­play­ing jack­fruit dishes.

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