A Brief History of Jackfruit
Rarely seen in grocery stores, jackfruit is considered the largest tree-borne fruit in the world.
Did you ever see any jackfruit when you were a kid? Me neither, but admittedly, it’s been a while since I was a kid. Kids these days have probably seen a few, especially at Asian markets around town. Up until a couple of decades ago, Asian markets were about the only place you might see a jackfruit, but you can find them in some mainstream grocery chain stores nowadays too. They are those green or brown, football-sized and shaped objects in the bin with a skin covered in small knobby protrusions.
Nobody knows for sure, but the jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus, is thought to have originated in the rainforests of a mountain range called the Western Ghats that runs inland along the West coast of India. It is in cultivation in many places around the world including India, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, the Philippines, central East Africa, Brazil, and Jamaica. A few trees exist in Florida, Hawaii, and other pacific islands. It is not cold tolerant and even a rare freeze will prevent them from becoming established. This fruit has not been in the Western world for very long, only coming to Jamaica in the late 1700s and to Brazil sometime after that.
The evergreen trees, which are classified in the Moraceae (the fig, mulberry, or breadfruit family) are quite large and so are the fruit. In fact, the jackfruit is considered the largest tree-born fruit in the world. Rarely, some specimens can weigh in at more than 100 pounds, although you won’t find any that heavy at your local market. The fruit grow kind of weirdly on the end of thick stems that protrude right out of the trunk or thick branches. The trees are a valued source of wood that has many uses in India and other places where they serve the dual purpose of providing both food and building material. Jackfruit lumber is used to build houses, roofs, floors, windows, furniture, and musical instruments. The heartwood is considered an exotic wood with a very nice grain. In the U.S. a prime plank can go for hundreds of dollars.
More from this series:
- A Brief History of Bananas
- A Brief History of Olives
- A Brief History of Cocoa Beans
- A Brief History of Peanuts
One thing working against wider adoption of the jackfruit into Western diets is its stench. It is not quite as stinky as the durian (banned from public transportation in some places), which looks a bit similar, but is smaller with more pointy protrusions on the rind. An unopened ripe jackfruit emits an odor reminiscent of rotting onions but interestingly enough, the inside is much more agreeable with a fruity banana-like smell. They ripen quickly so there is limited time to get them from tree to market, even with cold storage.
The jackfruit is a composite fruit, meaning it develops from an entire inflorescence (basically a bunch of flowers growing together in a group) and not a single flower. When you cut one open, you find many juicy bulb-like segments each containing one seed — each derived from a single flower. The flesh surrounding the seeds tastes something like a cross between an apple and a banana. The seeds are quite large and are a good source of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates. In fact the high concentration of starch makes them quite susceptible to microbial decay which contributes to a limited shelf life.
So, let’s say you decided to pick up one of these large, knobby-looking things. What do you do with it? When ripe, the flesh is sweet and can be eaten raw. The seeds can be boiled or roasted. Before it fully ripens, the flesh is fibrous and stringy and has found use as a meat substitute. The look and taste have been compared to that of pulled pork.
Looking to expand your fruit selection beyond apples and bananas? Head over to your local Asian market or specialty food store and give the jackfruit a try.
For more detailed in information on jackfruit click here.
Written by Philip McIntosh | Science & Technology Writer, Teacher