Imagine a spiky green fruit, the size of a watermelon or pumpkin dangling from a branch or the trunk of a large tropical evergreen tree. Most people have never seen a forty-pound fruit hanging from the trunk of a large tree. Jackfruit, a member of the mulberry family, is the largest fruit to grow on a tree in the world. Its melon-shaped fruit can reach a length of 13 inches and can weigh up to 100 pounds.
Dr. Al Bismonte, a longtime resident of Marco Island, has a collection of exotic tropical fruit trees in his backyard, but the jackfruit, by far, is the most spectacular. Jackfruits are extensively grown in India, but are also found in most Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, and also in Southwest Florida. Al planted this tree to remind him of his native country, the Philippines.
Why “jackfruit?” It most likely came from what the Portuguese called “jaca” which was a version of a name used for this fruit in Southern India. It is known as “kathal” inBangladesh, “kanun” in Thailand, “langka” in the Philippines, and “mit” in Vietnam.
Backyard curiosities: Many years ago, a jackfruit was a “backyard curiosity” in Southwest Florida. Now, you can find jackfruit at Farmer’s Markets, on restaurant menus, and growing in our island backyards. You can also find jackfruit in Asian markets, stacked high in the produce section, weighing about 20-50 pounds each. They are also canned, but these are packaged in heavy fruit syrup. Al Bismonte freezes most of his Jackfruit and packages them for gifts.
How to cut open a jackfruit: The fruit contains a sticky latex when cut open, so it is best to wear gloves. Fresh Jackfruit has a musky aroma. Embedded inside are sweet yellow, edible “fleshy pods” or “bulbs” that surround a seed. The clove-like seeds, if boiled, have a chestnut-like taste and consistency.
Not your typical fruit: Tasters have described it as “mellow mango” or a “little peachy,” or a combination of pear, papaya and banana, or closer to Juicy Fruit gum, tasting sweet in a tropical kind of way. Its texture is compared toa chunky applesauce. It tastes great with yogurt or semi-frozen like a jackfruit popsicle. But nothing beats fresh jackfruit, by far.
In Thailand, they like to eat chunks of jackfruit with sticky rice, while Filipinos make ice cream with sweet jackfruit and a side dish of coconut cream. Or you can use the “fleshy pods” sliced, added to salad mixed with diced peppers, onions and tomatoes. The unripe fruit when cooked is said to have the consistency of pulled pork or chicken, which makes it an excellent vegetarian meal when added to curries, salads, noodles or even tacos.
Southwest Florida is very well suited for this spectacular fruit. According to Dr. Richard Campbell of Fairchild’s Tropical Botanical Garden, “the future is bright for this rising star of the tropical fruit world.”
Tips in buying jackfruit: Buy ripe, which means look for yellowish skin that yields under gentle pressure. It may be too ripe if you can smell its distinctive musky fragrance. Or buy green and firm and let the fruit sit on the counter to ripen. Better still, befriend a neighborwith a mature jackfruit.
• 3 cups fresh jackfruit (seeded and rinsed)
• 1 Tbs. olive oil
• 1 cup onion, chopped
• 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 teaspoon cumin
• 1 teaspoon chili powder
• ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
• One 15-ounce can kidney beans, drained
• 3 cups canned diced tomatoes, with liquid
• Hot sauce to taste
• 1 can corn, drained
• 4 cups water
Make sure that your jackfruit is not very ripe, as the fruit becomes too sweet when it fully ripens. Shred the jackfruit with a fork and set aside. Add oil to a large pot and sauté (on medium low heat) the onions, garlic, cumin, red pepper flakes (if using), and chili powder. Once onions are soft and translucent add all of the remaining ingredients. Turn up the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally or until the jackfruit is tender.
Serve with thinly sliced fresh jalapeno, finely diced sweet Vidalia onions, and a dollop of sour cream. Shredded cheddar cheese is optional.