What Is Jackfruit? All About This Popular Vegan-Friendly Meat Alternative—Including How to Prep and Eat It
There's a reason it has become such a popular ingredient.
The largest fruit in the world, the jackfruit, is lumbering into a supermarket near you—assuming it isn't there already, that is. Its presence in conventional grocery stores is beginning to raise eyebrows and has also inspired logistical head-scratching: How do I get this huge thing home, and then what do I do with it? Simply put, jackfruit can be daunting.
Driving interest in the massive tree fruit is the developing trend towards plant-based diets. Vegan and vegetarian eaters are seeking substance and nutrition without having to rely on animal proteins, with their attendant, but peculiarly satisfying, textures. In short, jackfruit has been discovered by millennials, and it is being marketed as an attractive stand-in for everything from chicken cutlets to pulled pork. Here's what you need to know about the buzzy ingredient.
What Is the Jackfruit?
Jackfruit is the common name for the fruit born on an evergreen tree known botanically as Artocarpus heterophyllus. It is presumed native to India but found across the Malaya Peninsula. It is common in Indonesia and the Philippines and is also cultivated in tropical regions in Africa, and South America, and in Mexico. Jackfruit can grow in most subtropical and tropical climates; stateside, it is cultivated in Hawaii and Florida. Interestingly, jackfruit resembles—on a grand scale—its relative, the cold-hardy North American native osage orange (Maclura pomifera), whose fragrant green fruit drop from their branches like small bombs in late fall. Both are members of the mulberry—Moraceae—family.
Jackfruit are truly enormous. Watermelon shaped, they range in size from one to three feet in length and generally weigh between 10 and 80 pounds. Their thick skin is evenly covered in knobbly spikes (nothing like the scary durian; if jackfruit is a rolled-up hedgehog, then durian is a porcupine). As the fruit ripens, the skin turns from pale green to yellow-brown.
How to Eat Jackfruit
Like plantains, jackfruit is eaten as a starchy vegetable when unripe, before seeds have formed, and as a sweet fruit when ripe. As a staple starch, its immature flesh is boiled, fried, or roasted. At this stage the skin is hard and green, and the interior is a pale, creamy color. The firm, unripe flesh is sliceable once peeled, but the cut fruit exudes a sticky latex that is hard to remove (try rubbing alcohol). Protect work surfaces and either wear gloves or grease your hands in the more traditional oil before you start your prep work. Once peeled and cut up, the raw unripe fruit must be boiled until tender.
When ripe the knobs on jackfruit skin are soft, the whole fruit yields to pressure, and its distinctive, musky—sometimes sulphuric—perfume is present. The individual segments each enclose a seed, and these are yellow to pink in color, depending on the cultivar. Their flavor is like a strong-smelling tropical fruit salad meets Hi Chew candy. The mature seeds are considered a delicacy and are traditionally eaten after roasting or long boiling—do not eat them raw. Their texture and flavor fall somewhere between a cooked gingko and roasted chestnut. Ideally, the unripe fruit should be sold in slices by weight (or in peeled ripe segments), as it is in its home range. But creative cooks facing an intact monster could band together to buy a single jackfruit and then split it several ways back at home.
Prepared Jackfruit Is the Easiest Route
There are other ways to try jackfruit, minus the drama and beauty of the whole fruit, but also without the bulk and the clean-up: You can buy jackfruit canned, and, more recently, in portion-sized, vacuum-sealed plastic packages sold by purveyors like Upton's Naturals, who market their brand as a stand-in for pulled pork or jerk chick (they have pre-seasoned versions, too). Upton Natural's fruit is sourced, cooked, and packaged in Thailand, before making its way to supermarket shelves. Its texture is soft and very moist, and it takes well—and actively requires since it is bland—to very heavy seasoning: think sweet-and-sour or garam masala for a curry, or baharat if you prefer your jackfruit stuffed into Middle Eastern-style pitas.
It's a Good Option for Vegans and Vegetarians
Nutritionally speaking, jackfruit is high in carbohydrates and low in protein (which makes it a good choice for low protein diets and a bad one for keto), with high potassium and magnesium values, as well as vitamin C.