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Is jackfruit the new superfood?

April 12, 2018 12:02 IST

Now recognised as Kerala's official fruit, it may finally get the recognition it deserves.
Nikita Puri reports.

George W Bush jackfruit

IMAGE: Former US President George W Bush (centre) holds up a giant jackfruit as he tours the Acharya NG Ranga Agriculture University.
Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

 

Every summer, with the afternoon sun streaming in from the glass tiles on her otherwise red tiled-roof in central Kerala, Thresiamma would sit on her back porch surrounded by her daughters and daughters-in-laws.

Having picked the ripest jackfruit from one of the many trees in her compound, they'd armour up with the single-finger rubber gloves popular in Kerala. Armed with kattis (knives), they'd dig into the chakkapazham (pronounced "chakka-param", the ripe form of the fruit).

Deseeding the fruit would continue over rounds of stories about the family, or the current price of the rubber crop. 

The product of this bucolic afternoon scene would be chakka ada (mashed jackfruit with cardamom, jaggery and rice flour, wrapped in edana leaf and steamed), a summer delicacy Thresiamma insisted on making, while unripe jackfruit would be set aside for making chips.

From family rituals such as this, the jackfruit has steadily made its way over the years to festivals dedicated to the fruit.

With hundreds of jackfruit recipes still undocumented, the connection the fruit has with generations of Malayalis remains a powerful, albeit understated, one.

 

Recently, VS Sunil Kumar, the state's agriculture minister, announced in the state assembly that jackfruit would henceforth be Kerala's official fruit.

The aim is to promote the "Kerala Jackfruit" as a brand in markets across the country and abroad, Kumar said, besides showcasing its organic and high-nutrition qualities.

A revenue of ₹150 billion is expected through the sale of jackfruit and its allied products through branding of the fruit, he added.

Incidentally, Kerala isn't the only state to have an official fruit.

Telangana's, for instance, is the mango.

Apart from the self-proclaimed title of "God's Own Country", Kerala's branding also extends to the elephant being anointed official animal, the Great Hornbill as state bird and pearl spot (karimeen) as the state fish.

Also on the mandate is extensive research on jackfruit to be carried out in Ambalavayal, in Kerala's Wayanad district. "The jackfruit tree is kalpavruksha (a wish-fulfilling tree)," says P Rajendran, associate director at Regional Agriculture Research Station, Ambalavayal.

"It has proven medicinal and nutritional benefits but the drought-resistant jackfruit has been neglected for a long time. Recent years have made us more aware of our food, nutrition and health security. Jackfruit, being an indigenous food crop, doesn't require any maintenance," adds Rajendran. 

The decision to give jackfruit its due began in earnest with a jackfruit festival last year where, in between pop-ups hawking jackfruit saplings and jackfruit unniyappams (fritters), agriculture scientists from over 12 countries presented research papers on the fruit.

Jackfruit festivals have gained prominence in recent years not just in Kerala, but also in Karnataka and Goa.

Organised locally in cities across Kerala, a thaali at one of these fests boasts a minimum of 10 dishes with jackfruit as the prime protagonist. 

In between binging on jackfruit chips and payasam and bagging bottles of ready jackfruit pulp, you could also sign up for one of the many contests that have made these festivals popular, such as the jackfruit-eating contest where one gets plates of the ripe, golden yellow fleshy fruit.

For the braver among us, there are also contests that time you on how fast you can peel one of these (fair warning: expect a sticky ride owing to the obstinate sap).

Last year in Kochi, one of these festivals invited participants to lift and hold up a kingsize-jackfruit, a mammoth specimen weighing 50 kg.

The farmer-friendliness and medicinal benefits of the prickly jackfruit has made campaigners out of some men.

"Jackfruit was always looked down upon as a poor man's food but now it has become a part of royal wedding banquets in the North," says Shree Padre, a rainwater harvesting exponent known for his work in farmer-friendly journalism.

Based in Kasaragod, North Kerala, Padre is also the executive editor of a monthly Kannada agriculture magazine, Adike Patrike. Over the last decade, Adike Patrike has done 30 cover stories on why jackfruit deserves a place of honour among the world's most treasured pantheon of fruits.

Another vocal ambassador for the fruit is James Joseph, a former director for Microsoft and founder of Kochi-based Jackfruit365.

"Kerala is the largest recipient of jackfruit. I say 'recipient' because we don't cultivate jackfruit, it just grows on its own," he says. 

Recent years have seen a change in attitude towards the fruit. People would put a jackfruit on their boundary walls and hope that someone would just take it away. Now, they use a weighing scale before the jackfruit is passed onto local shops, says Joseph.

"Every part of the jackfruit can be used," says Rajendran.

Besides the flesh, the jackfruit tree also provides high-quality timber and its roots and leaves reportedly have medicinal benefits.

"There is no farmer-friendly supply chain for jackfruit. Besides, unlike bananas or oranges, jackfruit doesn't have a ready market," says Padre.

A whole jackfruit is often too much for a family to consume, so packets with deseeded kathal, as it is known in North India, continue to be popular across India. 

The development mantra best suited to promote jackfruit, feels Padre, falls in two categories -- ready-to-cook (RTC) and ready-to-eat (RTE).

"Mother Dairy's Safal has now introduced frozen tender jackfruit. That will go a long way in promoting jackfruit," he says.

A popular belief in Kerala, one that Joseph's uncle would often remind him of, is that a jackfruit tree in one's compound will add 10 years to a man's life.

Joseph's extensive advocation of how green jackfruit could fight diabetes landed him a meeting with the late APJ Abdul Kalam.

After going through all the scientific research that Joseph had put together, Kalam reportedly told him, "It makes absolute sense, combination of low glycemic index and high fibre of raw jackfruit can very well result in low absorption sugar to the body," Kalam said.

"Find a way to add jackfruit to regular eating habits," he added.

Joseph's Jackfruit365, now available everywhere from Nature's Basket to Amazon, specialises in flour made from green jackfruit.

The flour can be substituted for one cup of atta for chapattis and can be added to everything from idli-dosa to mathris, galauti kebabs and panna cotta. 

In his documentation of jackfruit's uses are stories of a chef of a five-star hotel remembering the time his family survived on jackfruit for two whole months during communal riots.

Another story Joseph shares is of a diabetic man whose doctor discontinued his insulin prescription after he started using green jackfruit flour. 

"When doctors ask diabetics to avoid jackfruit, they mean the ripe form," says Joseph. "English has only one word for jackfruit. But in Malayalam chakka is different from chakkapazham," says Joseph.

The antioxidant-rich chakka is the green, unripe form used in kathal subzis.

About 65 varieties of high-quality jackfruits have already been identified by the research team at Ambalavayal, says Rajendran.

"We'll study and recommend to farmers which ones to grow for commercial purposes. The challenge is also to identify what value additions we can make," he says. 

Padre recognises this as a real challenge: while India, despite being the "mother country of jackfruit" has a negligible number of centres specialising in such value additions, Sri Lanka has 14.

As an example of an out-of-the box jackfruit product, he recalls two instances, one in Karnataka and the other in Kerala, where guests were served jackseed (jackfruit seed) coffee. "Not a single person was able to differentiate it from regular coffee. This kind of coffee doesn't even have caffeine," says Padre.

These seeds are also considered to be cheaper alternatives to cocoa beans used for chocolate.

Back in Thresiamma's household, the sickly sweet odour of ripe jackfruit continues to nudge the non-Malayali members of the family as far away from the fruit as possible.

Some non-believers even compare its distinctive scent to durian, a fruit that is reportedly banned on the Singapore Rapid Mass Transit because of its odour.

But as the industry begins to work around the rather forthright sap and odour of the ripe fruit, many have realised that somewhere in between the kitchen and dining table is an untapped repository of health and taste.

It was while he was negotiating a particularly succulent steak in the US many moons ago that Joseph realised how much the side-serving of mashed potatoes reminded him of chakka puzhukku, a dish made of unripe, mashed jackfruit.

The doors to a brave new world with jackfruit as a substitute food have only just been opened.

Nikita Puri
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