Within the walls of a bustling banquet kitchen in New Delhi, a master chef of Awadhi expertise carefully cuts open the purdah of a Dum Biryani. The intoxicating aroma that wafts from it stops me in my tracks. Curious, I approach the chef, prodding him to let me taste the preparation. He pulls out a ladle full of something that definitely looks like meat and rice.
A ‘mind blown’ meme would be apt here as I cautiously partake in a spoonful of what he later tells me is Kathal or Raw Jackfruit Biryani. It took me nearly 24 years and an unlikely city in the North to truly fall in love with this amazing fruit.
Although dogged by a ‘love it or hate it’ tagline, the jackfruit’s versatility and flavour is reason enough to discount your best friends’ apprehensions and gorge away at this superb ingredient. A native species found predominantly in the peninsular, eastern and north eastern regions of India, the Artocarpus heterophyllus is a super-tree that keeps on giving, and one that is currently battling some hard times.
This article is by no means a fact sheet highlighting the history, significance and the current plight of the jackfruit and its valiant caregivers. What it is though, is a gentle plea to expand your drishtikon and give this humble behemoth a second look. Whether it is raw or ripe, or in the form of wine, jam, chutney, curry or payasam – the resourceful jackfruit needs all the love it can get and in any form you can get your hands on. The problem is the jackfruit can be quite intimidating to the uninitiated.
Mass perception can be a serious dampener when it comes to food. Describing the flavour of a fruit, by using mangoes, bananas, pineapples and putrefied onions as reference is a messed up way to convince someone to give it a first try. Complicate this with the fact that the term ‘funky’ may also apply to its aroma along with prickly, latex-ridden and ginormous as defining physical attributes and one can see why it is so hard to convince the new-age customer to order for a portion of the ripe jackfruit curry from the daily specials menu.
Rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre and flavour, the jackfruit has been a valuable source of nutrition to people for thousands of years in India. But this seems to be changing. Studies mapping the eating pattern of humans across the world have shown that people are increasingly eating the same kind of food, irrespective of which region of the world they belong to. Across continents people are moving away from indigenous sources of nutrition such as millets and tubers towards obtaining more energy from a plethora of processed foods, wheat, rice, corn, sugar, refined oils, dairy and meats limited to just a few sources. Lost in this hurricane of change towards homogeneity is the jackfruit.
Disadvantaged further by its large size, quick deterioration and a general perception as a poor man’s food, large swathes of Indian jackfruits are rotting away, instead of finding themselves in blogs, tiffins and fine dining plates across the country. Other countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia have upped their game seriously and are now pushing for the jackfruit harder than ever. Commercial cultivation is being encouraged and thankfully the international market has decided to go gaga over the culinary applications of this wonder-fruit. In the face of such appreciation, it is disheartening to see that the jackfruit is such a neglected fruit in its own country of origin.
A few years after the biryani episode, I found myself managing a barbeque and grill dinner at a cocktail event that concluded a prestigious culinary conference. Sure enough the rock stars of India’s culinary scene had gathered upon the patio that evening, which called for a varied and tasteful spread. Convincing a crowd to eat meat is never a problem. The hardest task is keeping the vegetarians happy and not letting them feel like victims of culinary racism. Hence the need for a fitting vegetarian opponent (to face the crowd favourite ‘Pulled Pork’) that wasn’t paneer or some fancy imported ingredient with no potential whatsoever beyond its international stature.
In its simplest form, a sundried paste of the dried fruit, or jackfruit leather is good enough to make you feel like a child again. Chakka Varatti (or jackfruit preserve) is a delicacy from Kerala, made from jackfruit pulp, jaggery and ghee, that is difficult to wean off from once it makes its way into your system. What is potentially more dangerous though is consuming Chakka Pradhaman, a delicacy made by incorporating coconut milk to aforementioned preserve and infusing it with ginger powder, cardamom, coconut chips and roasted cashewnuts
Semi ripe jackfruit – smoked slowly with wood and coal over several hours, seasoned with a blend of onions, garlic, Kashmiri chillies, mustard, ginger and soy sauce – held its own against the pig as ‘Pulled Jackfruit’ and managed to gather enough attention to call for several retakes.
In the ripe form, the jackfruit features as one of the Mukkani – the triumvirate of traditional fruits mentioned in traditional Tamil texts (the other two being mango and banana) that are offered to gods. Our fascination with the ripe fruit can be seen in the numerous sweet preparations made from it. In its simplest form, a sundried paste of the dried fruit, or jackfruit leather is good enough to make you feel like a child again. Chakka Varatti (or jackfruit preserve) is a delicacy from Kerala, made from jackfruit pulp, jaggery and ghee, that is difficult to wean off from once it makes its way into your system. What is potentially more dangerous though is consuming Chakka Pradhaman, a delicacy made by incorporating coconut milk to aforementioned preserve and infusing it with ginger powder, cardamom, coconut chips and roasted cashewnuts. Panasa Idli (jackfruit Idlis, best eaten piping hot with copious amounts of ghee) or Halasina Hannina Mulka (jackfruit fritters) are love tales of jackfruit and rice with jaggery and coconut as catalyst, that remind us how our grandmothers weaved magic so much better than those of our age.
So is this then the place for jackfruits? Swaying between history and tradition and confined to old recipes or best experienced as one-time novel treats? Thankfully not.
Disadvantaged by its large size, quick deterioration and a general perception as a poor man’s food, large swathes of Indian jackfruits are rotting away, instead of finding themselves in blogs, tiffins and fine dining plates across the country
A few years later still, and far away from pulled jackfruit on patios, I came down South to work at a swanky kitchen of one of the best progressive Indian restaurants of the country. This was still R&D phase and we wanted to come up with a dish that would blow people’s socks off with little or no chance or recovery before dessert course arrived. My boss back then was a fantastic chef with decades of international experience and a palette that would put Anton Ego to shame. Being of Mangalorean descent, his love for jackfruit was, of course, resolute. How do you make a dish fit enough for a multi-course, fine dining progressive South Indian restaurant? His advice: ’To go back to simplicity, take it from there’.
The choicest ripe jackfruits, the finest Japanese sticky rice, and a divine spicy chutney of coriander, onions, tamarind, green chillies, ginger and garlic mellowed with a little jaggery. Wrap all of these up, one above the other, in any order of your choice in banana leaves and place carefully upon a slow griddle, turning occasionally and waiting patiently. Open and serve with a generous dollop of white butter. The result is a parcel that tests your limits of gluttony and makes you wonder - what else is this fruit truly capable of jiving with?
Other aficionados will admonish me for not doing enough justice to various regional specialities of jackfruit in this article. Their opinions are valid, but just words are probably not enough to express the culinary prowess that the modest jackfruit is capable of. To truly know, it must be savoured. Step out of your comfort zone and eat local for a change. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to taste this fruit yet, I implore you, go to the market and pick up a few pieces of the ripe fruit from vendors. They have thankfully done all the hard work for you. I might be biased because of my love affair with jackfruits, but this fruit is no underdog. It is a protean jackal, like the wise one from old fables that sits around a bonfire and draws you in with wondrous stories, culinary escapades and toasted jackfruit seeds that taste like chocolate. You will end up doing more good than you intend to and even lesser harm than you wish to avoid.
(Chef Ashwin enjoys making provocative soul food and comfortable sandwiches and is occasionally known to take lunch breaks lasting a whole day. At other times, he keeps busy with R&D of progressive cuisine and will soon be launching his own culinary venture)