Jackfruit: The “Wonder-Food”
What is Jackfruit? What’s it Taste Like? + Jackfruit Recipes!
Jackfruit has become all the rage in the food world lately! Maybe you’ve seen the gigantic, spiky fruit in your produce section, canned in brine, or in pre-made packages near the tofu. Maybe you’ve even tried it. Or, maybe you’re not really sure what jackfruit is and are wondering, what the heck is all the fuss about??
There’s a fuss for plenty of good reasons! Not only is jackfruit a monster of a fruit that’s amazing to look at, it’s delicious and SO versatile. When it’s ripe, jackfruit is a sweet, juicy treat that tastes like a chewy mix of banana, pineapple, and mango. Even when it’s unripe, jackfruit can still be eaten and enjoyed! Jackfruit has become more popular recently as a plant-based substitute for meat, because the unripe fruit has a hearty, meat-like texture. It’s party sweet, part tangy, and can take on the flavors in just about any savory dish.
But, don’t be fooled, jackfruit has been around for a long time. And it’s trending now not just as a meat substitute, but as a crop that could help solve major world problems. I guess you could say jackfruit is a jack of all trades (HA), with plenty of uses globally and in your own kitchen. So let’s get to know jackfruit a bit better:
What is Jackfruit?
Jackfruit, also known as fenne, jackfruit, or just “jack,” grows on the jack tree, which is is a 30-50 foot tall tree that’s native to south India and southeast Asia. It’s part of the fig, mulberry, and breadfruit family, but jackfruit is the more humongous than any of these by far. Jackfruit is actually the largest tree-borne fruit in the entire world! They can grow up to 3 feet long and almost 2 feet in diameter, with the largest jackfruit weighing nearly 100 pounds.
Jackfruit has a very distinctive look—not only is it GIANT, but it’s also covered in a thick, spiky skin. It starts out as a bright green color, which is an indication that a young jackfruit is unripe. As it ripens, jackfruit becomes more yellow and orange on the outside. These enormous fruits grow on both the branches and the trunk of a jack tree (which you do not want to stand underneath for too long). But, it’s best to pick jackfruit before they fall from the tree, otherwise they’re overripe at that point.
One of the things that makes jackfruit so awesome is it’s versatility. It can be eaten when ripe as a sweet fruit, or cooked when unripe to bulk up savory dishes. Jackfruit is actually a “multiple fruit,” which means it’s made up of hundreds and sometimes thousands of individual flowers inside. When a jackfruit is cut open, you find tons of fleshy pods inside that are edible. The fibrous fruit is a great source of fiber, and it’s known for its unique smell—some say it’s sweet and fruity, others liken it to stinky feet or pet food. And, though jackfruit skin isn’t edible, the seeds can also be used in many ways and are extremely nutritious.
What Does Jackfruit Taste Like?
Despite its distinctive smells, describe as “musky” by some and fruity by others, jackfruit tastes delicious. The ripe fruit tends to be softer, oftentimes stringy, and undeniably sweet. The taste of ripe jackfruit has been compared to:
- A sweet subtle blend of tropical fruits, like pineapple, banana, mango, and apple
- A mellow, peachy, pear-like fruit
- Juicy Fruit chewing gum
Ripe jackfruit has a naturally sweet and subtle flavor, which makes it popular in desserts across southeast Asia. Once the fleshy pods are extracted and deseeded, they can be used in cakes and custards, mixed into shaved ice, or even turned into jackfruit ice cream! Sometimes the sweet fruit is even freeze-dried into crunchy jackfruit chips.
Unripe jackfruit, on the other hand, is tougher and more dense. The texture is often compared to poultry or pulled pork, and the flavor is quite different from ripe jackfruit. Unripe jackfruit is:
- Savory and tangy, with just a hint of sweetness
- Often compared to the taste of artichoke hearts
- A fairly neutral flavor that can easily take on other flavors
When you bite into young, unripe jackfruit, it’s dense and hearty like meat. It’s been nicknamed gacch-patha in parts of India, which means “tree mutton.” Jackfruit doesn’t quite taste like meat on its own, but it can easily fool you into believing it’s meat when cooked in the right dish with the right flavors. It’s popular in curries, on top of salads, and now in vegan pulled “pork” sandwiches. The heartiness makes it a great vegetarian or vegan substitute for meat, especially if you’re transitioning into a meatless or plant-based lifestyle.
And, as mentioned earlier, even jackfruit seeds are edible and used in creative ways. Ripe jackfruit seeds are said to have a milky, sweet taste. Baked or roasted jackfruit seeds are a popular snack in some parts of southeast Asia, with a taste similar to Brazil nuts. The seeds can also be boiled to use in cooked dishes, or ground into a flour. If you decide to tackle the beast that is a whole jackfruit, you’ll clearly be opening up a world of culinary possibility.
Is Jackfruit Healthy?
Like most fruits and veggies on the planet, jackfruit has many healthy nutrients and health benefits. There are several varieties of jackfruit so the nutrition can vary, and the nutritional composition of jackfruit changes as it ripens:
I’ve only cooked with Trader Joe’s 20 oz. canned green jackfruit in brine, which is just pieces of young, unripe jackfruit stored in a solution of water, salt, and citric acid:
1 cup (140g), 2 servings per can:
- Calories: 45
- Fat: 0g
- Sodium: 300mg
- Potassium: 135mg
- Carbs: 10g
- Fiber: 7g
- Sugars: 0g
- Protein: 0g
Ripe jackfruit, like all fruits, has a higher sugar content because its sugars mature and fully develop as it ripens. This means the nutritional profile changes:
1 cup, sliced (165g):
- Calories: 157
- Fat: 1.1g
- Sodium: 3mg
- Potassium: 739mg
- Carbs: 38g
- Fiber: 2.5g
- Sugars: 31g
- Protein: 2.8g
Both ripe and unripe jackfruit are low in calories and low in fat, with quality fiber content. Because the natural sugars in unripe jackfruit are not yet developed, it’s even lower in calories, making it a popular meat substitute or healthy addition to meat dishes. Unripe jackfruit is also more fibrous so it’s rich in dietary fiber, with almost 25% of our recommended daily value (DV) in one serving! Though ripe jackfruit is higher in sugar content, these are natural sugars, and the ripe fruit still provides over 10% of our (DV). Plus, ripe jackfruit offers some protein and is lower in sodium because it’s fresh instead of canned in brine. (And it’s sweet and delicious!)
With unripe jackfruit’s high fiber content and meaty texture, it can provide a hearty meal that satisfies and fills up our bellies. This is why it can be helpful for some people transitioning into meatless or plant-based lifestyles. That fiber is also great for digestion, and people in Burma even begin meals with jackfruit because it helps with the digestion of the rest of their meal. But, while unripe jackfruit can be a good non-soy meat substitute texture-wise, it isn’t actually very rich in protein. It’s jackfruit seeds that contain more protein, not the fruit. So, if you’re looking to incorporate jackfruit into your diet, just be aware that it isn’t a sufficient source of protein!
Protein content aside, there are plenty of other nutrients that make jackfruit worth eating:
- Vitamin C—one cup of ripe jackfruit can contain almost 20% of our DV for vitamin C, is an antioxidant that can boost our immune system
- Vitamin A—another antioxidant, which can keep our skin and eyes healthy
- Vitamin B6—associated with a lower risk of heart disease, and important for our brain health
- Magnesium—important for the structure of our bones
- Potassium—can help lower blood pressure
- Antioxidants—along with vitamin C and A, jackfruit contains other antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals that can cause damage to our bodies or lead to cancer
Jackfruit absolutely offers some serious health benefits, just beware of varieties that are bottled or canned in syrup. The added sugar will only take away from the nutritional value of the jackfruit!
Where Can I Find Jackfruit?
Jackfruit is an everyday food in many countries across south and southeast Asia, where it’s found at food markets and in local cuisine. The biggest jackfruit producers are Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh (where jackfruit is the national fruit!), and India. It’s been grown and cultivated in India for centuries—archaeological findings even suggest jackfruit was grown there as long as 3000 to 6000 years ago! In India, it was commonly called chakka pazham, then the Portuguese arrived in 1498 and began calling in jaca, and now it’s evolved into “jack” or jackfruit. But, it’s got plenty of other names across the world, like kathal in Bangladesh, kanun in Thailand, and nangka in Malaysia.
The starchy, unripe jackfruit is often cooked into curries, while the sweet, ripe fruit is paired with sticky rice or ice cream. There are jackfruit chips, jackfruit noodles, and, of course, it’s enjoyed in it’s plain-and-simple fresh form. But jackfruit isn’t limited to southeast Asia—it’s grown in plenty of other tropical areas. It’s become popular in Brazil, and is even sold in some markets in northern Australia. Only in recent years has jackfruit started appearing more widely across the United States.
In plenty of areas in the U.S., jackfruit can still be hard to find. But, if you want to get your hands on it, there are a few places you should look:
- Some local Asian markets and Caribbean stores sell whole, unprepared jackfruit.
- More major stores have started to debut jackfruit in their produce section. (I recently saw a whole jackfruit for the first time in Ralph’s, one of the major stores near me!)
- It’s more commonly available at specialty stores, like Whole Foods or Wegman’s.
- Look for bottled, canned, or frozen jackfruit products—they may have been there all along, you just didn’t know where to look! (I also recently found Trader Joe’s jackfruit canned in brine, which sparked my jackfruit feeding frenzy.)
- Look in the refrigerated section of your grocery store near the tofu and other meat alternatives—I’ve found jackfruit meals-in-a-pouch there from The Jackfruit Company that you just heat up and eat!
How Can Jackfruit Help the World?
If you haven’t caught on yet, jackfruit is insanely versatile—yet it is extremely underutilized. Despite it’s growing popularity as a “miracle food” in the West, around 75% of the jackfruit in India goes to waste. Jackfruit grows wild in India, where ¼ of the world’s undernourished people live, but it’s considered a “poor man’s fruit” there. Many people don’t use it or don’t harvest it in time, and jackfruit goes bad within a few weeks if it’s not eaten or preserved in some way.
As more research emerges about the usefulness of jackfruit, there’s a greater push for jackfruit production. Jackfruit is now considered to be a kind of wonder-crop that might help tackle serious problems across the globe. If you’re not already amazed by jackfruit’s versatility as an ingredient and its health benefits, prepare to be amazed by its superpowers:
- Fighting Food Insecurity—jack tree requires very little care and it’s perennial, so it doesn’t require constant replanting. It’s much easier to manage than crops like wheat, rice, or corn. It’s also drought-resistant, making it an ideal crop in areas struggling with agricultural decline and lack of food. Just one tree can produce 100 to 200 fruits each year, which can amount to several TONS of food.
- Feeding the Malnourished—jackfruit is a great source of nutrients, it can be eaten and cooked in so many ways, and it’s HUGE. One jackfruit can potentially feed an entire family for dinner. It could be a main meal, a dessert, or both!
- Combatting Climate Change—because jackfruit can withstand droughts, it’s a crop that may become increasingly important. It thrives in warmer climates, unlike other popular crops such as wheat and corn which are already being affected by heat waves.
- Preserving Natural Resources—jack tree has many uses beyond the fruit it produces. The wood from the tree can be used to make musical instruments, furniture, or even houses, and it’s termite-proof. The bark can be used to make an orange dye and the tree produces a natural glue-like substance. Plus, jackfruit can help to feed farm animals, and an increase in jackfruit tree crops could help minimize the negative environmental impact of large-scale farms.
How Do I Cook Jackfruit?
There are many reasons to give jackfruit a try—personally, I was too curious to not give it a try! I don’t have experience handling the entire, monstrous fruit, and that discouraged me from trying it at first. It’s huge, it’s spiky, it’s a lot to manage! But, there are lots of resources out there from brave folks who have tackled the jackfruit beast. And, lucky for me, there are other nifty options like the pre-packaged jackfruit meals, frozen jackfruit, and jackfruit canned in brine. These convenient options won’t give you the sweet, ripe jackfruit experience, but they make it easier to get your hands on unripe jackfruit to use in all kinds of savory dishes.
You can cook jackfruit like any other starch, or season and marinade it like pulled meat. It’s similar to tofu in that it’ll take on the flavors and seasonings of whatever it’s cooked in. So slow-cook it to make faux pulled “pork,” make a curry, add it to a soup, throw it in an omelet, stir fry, or on top of a pizza even! Get creative—you really can’t go wrong.
For some inspiration, check out these jackfruit recipes—a few that I came up with and some awesome ones that I’ve come across online (all of which are vegan)!