Meat that grows on trees: What's the deal with jackfruit?

Photo via Getty Images/Sirirak

Meat that grows on trees: What's the deal with jackfruit?

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Meat that grows on trees: What's the deal with jackfruit?

An unlikely combination of words is popping up on vacuum-sealed plastic containers in both the butcher and produce sections of grocery stores nationwide: Barbeque pulled pork jackfruit. Is it meat? Is it fruit? What’s the deal with jackfruit, and why is it having such a zeitgeist moment?

Jackfruit, also called fenne or nangka, is the world’s largest tree-borne fruit. The individual fruit looks something like an oblong, spiky cantaloupe, and can weigh a massive 80 pounds. The edible part of the fruit that humans consume is actually the tree’s petals. A single piece of fruit can contain anywhere from hundreds to more than a thousand individual petals inside. Since each tree can produce up to 200 enormous fruits a year – that’s two to three tons of edible fruit – jackfruit trees are increasingly being cultivated in nations facing food insecurity.

The jackfruit emits a wide array of aromas and tastes, depending on its stage of development and preparation. A ripe, unopened fruit is said to smell like pineapple and bananas, and freshly plucked petals can taste like a hybrid mango-apple. The seeds of the tree taste comparable to a macadamia nut when eaten salted and dried, but can taste downright chocolatey when roasted. The edible petals inside of the fruit are hardly delicate and flower-like. Instead, each piece is hardy, fibrous and starchy, allowing the fruit to endure a robust array of cooking preparations.

In parts of Southeast Asia and India, jackfruit dishes are commonplace on restaurant menus. The fruit is often transformed into noodles, chips and even ice creams. Jackfruit is cooked into curries, dried and ground down into flour for baking, or served atop shaved ice. It’s the vegan version of Bubba’s shrimp monologue in Forrest Gump: “Jackfruit-kabobs, jackfruit creole, jackfruit gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried.” If you can dream it, this versatile fruit can endure it.

But the preparation that has finally broken through into American markets and appetites is mock barbeque pulled pork. Whole Foods and Wegmans both now carry prepped offerings, and subreddits have even sprung up raving about the Trader Joe’s version. UK grocer Sainsbury’s added a sweet and savory BBQ pulled jackfruit to 500 stores this month. Starbucks is even rolling out a vegan jackfruit and carrot slaw across its European stores in 2018.

Photo via Getty Images/bhofack2

So why has the fruit suddenly clicked with Western appetites? Well, it mimics the taste, texture and mouthfeel of pulled pork uncannily well at a time when interest in superfoods and plant-based vegan alternatives to meat and dairy is spiking. American consumers are increasingly interested in nebulous dieting alternatives like wellness, intermittent fasting, and cleanses. Grocers and businesses are just adapting to the times.

Today’s consumers are often described as being less concerned with how much they are eating, and more interested in what exactly they are putting into their bodies. Jackfruit is just riding the same wave as oat milk, cauliflower crusts and rices, and low calorie ice cream alternatives. And the fact that Millennials love posting pictures of it certainly doesn’t hurt either.

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