Jackfruit: It's The Other Meat Substitute (No Soy, No Gluten) : Goats and Soda In 2014, food researchers wanted to get more people eating jackfruit — a tree fruit chock-full of nutrients. How's that going?
NPR logo Whatever Happened To ... The Plan To Jazz Up Jackfruit?

Whatever Happened To ... The Plan To Jazz Up Jackfruit?

Bet you think it's pulled pork! But in fact it's jackfruit baked with barbecue sauce and served up on Hawaiian rolls. Ben de la Cruz/NPR hide caption

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Ben de la Cruz/NPR

Bet you think it's pulled pork! But in fact it's jackfruit baked with barbecue sauce and served up on Hawaiian rolls.

Ben de la Cruz/NPR

Before "Goats and Soda" was born, I wrote a story for our sister blog, "The Salt" about the world's largest tree fruit. The jackfruit can grow as big as 100 pounds. It's a good source of protein, potassium, vitamin B and fiber. Plus: It's easy to grow in tropical climes. There was even a symposium devoted to revving up production and marketing. So how's that going?

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Goats are curious animals and "Goats and Soda" is a curious blog. Over the next week, we'll be looking back at some of our favorite stories to see "whatever happened to ..."

I knew it was time to do a follow-up story on jackfruit when I went shopping in Trader Joe's and saw 20-ounce cans of "Trader Joe's Green Jackfruit In Brine." For only $1.99!

Which raises the question: Who in America is buying canned jackfruit in brine?

Before I answer that question, let's flash back to 2014. For my story, I talked to food researchers who were gaga over jackfruit as a nutritious food for people in low-income countries who can't always get nutritious food.

It's not that people weren't eating any jackfruit. It's long been popular in South and Southeast Asia, both in its sweet ripe and bland unripe forms. It's used in everything from curries to desserts.

Jackfruits grow on the branches and trunks of tall trees. Harvesting them can be messy — the tree oozes white latex that stains everything. iStockphoto hide caption

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iStockphoto

Jackfruits grow on the branches and trunks of tall trees. Harvesting them can be messy — the tree oozes white latex that stains everything.

iStockphoto

But it's "an underutilized crop" in the tropical-to-subtropical climate where it thrives, says Nyree Zerega, director of the graduate program in plant biology and conservation at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. So the challenge was to promote it to a bigger audience in its native countries.

In 2017, the market for jackfruit is surging. James Joseph runs a company in India called JackFruit365 that is dedicated to the proposition that everyone should eat jackfruit. He sells freeze-dried jackfruit, packaged jackfruit and jackfruit flour. He says his market is people on the paleo diet, vegans and gluten-free folks. He pushes it as a meat substitute and also a grain substitute, suitable for curries.

In Kerala, the epicenter of jackfruit production in India, Joseph says that 400 tons of jackfruit a day is exported vs. 200 tons a day just a couple years ago.

And people are buying trees to cultivate the fruit for both home use and sale.

Dr. P. Rajendran, associate director of research at Kerala Agricultural University, confirms that "in India, the demand is increasing due to enhanced public awareness. Already farmers have started commercial planting of jackfruit in Kerala. Its impact on local economy and job creation will be visible within a couple of years."

And then there's the American audience. The jackfruit sold in Trader Joe's is immature — harvested at about 4 1/2 months. The green jackfruit hasn't developed its sugars.

While ripe jackfruit is sweet and has a kind of funky aroma, the green jackfruit has not developed its sugars. It's a blank canvas, just waiting for ... barbecue sauce.

Yes, in the United States, jackfruit is being pushed as the next big meat substitute for vegetarians.

Two U.S. companies are selling heat-and-serve pouches of pre-seasoned, prepared green jackfruit. Upton's Naturals offers Chili Lime Carnitas Jackfruit and Bar-B-Que Jackfruit. The Jackfruit Company sells BBQ, Curry, Tex-Mex and Teriyaki Jackfruit.

Whole Foods, Safeway and Sprouts Farmers Market are among the chains that carry the prepared jackfruit.

And how are they doing? Neither Upton's nor the Jackfruit Company would provide data on sales but both are upbeat about consumer interest. Jackfruit was dubbed a "rising star" by the Google report on most searched-for food items in 2016.

"The product resonates with our shoppers, who are increasily looking for product attributes like plant-based, vegetarian and vegan," says a spokeswoman for Sprouts.

Recipe: Jackfruit with barbecue sauce

You can buy pouches of jackfruit mixed with barbecue sauce. But it's not that hard to make your own. With the aid of an internet recipe for "pulled jackfruit," I set out to make the meat-free version of pulled pork.

I used one 20-ounce can of green jackfruit in brine from Trader Joe's. And it only took about an hour!

1. Saute onions and garlic (if you're a garlic fan) in oil in a frying pan.

2. Rinse the canned jackfruit to remove brine. It's already chopped up but dice it a bit finer, then add to the pan with vegetable broth to cover. Simmer about 10 minutes.

3. With a potato masher or fork, mash the softened jackfruit.

4. Spread the jackfruit/onion mix on foil on a baking sheet, pop it into a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes. Add half a cup of barbecue sauce, stir, then bake another 10 or 15 minutes.

5. Add more barbecue sauce (because, really, can you ever have enough?). Then dig in.

And the jackfruit importers are sending money into the global economy.

"We work directly with 350 farming families in India," says Annie Ryu of the Jackfruit Company.

Daniel Staackmann of Uptons, who first encountered jackfruit in a Nepalese restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, works with a factory in Thailand. While he's upbeat about jackfruit, he does admit that it "hasn't turned into coconut water yet" so there's probably not "a big impact" on the jobs market in Thailand.

Of course the big question is, how does green jackfruit taste?

I purchased a can of Trader Joe's jackfruit and turned it into fake pulled pork (see recipe).

I would totally have believed it was pulled pork, but maybe that's because I don't eat pork so I have no expectations. I thought the dish was chewy in a good way and very flavorful.

I brought some into work and asked people to sample and weigh in.

"It tastes and looks like meat," said a guy who described his palate as "not very discerning."

"This is no pulled pork," said a dissenter with a discerning palate, noting that the jackfruit did not have a fattiness that lingers in the mouth.

It was variously compared to mushrooms and artichokes. Everybody agreed it was better than other meat substitutes in terms of the nicely chewy, sinewy texture (which is responsible for its Bengali nickname, "tree goat," since goat is a sinewy meat).

Overall, the barbecued jackfruit was pretty popular. "I would not have guessed that was a fruit," said one person. "It's palatable and healthful and it tastes good."

"It's so good I'm gonna have one more bite," said another.

And for me, a non-pork eater, it's the "pulled pork of my dreams," as one colleague put it.


Freelance reporter Chhavi Sachdev, based in Mumbai, India, contributed reporting to this story.


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