Jackfruit is huge. Looking like a lumpy, dangerous watermelon, it can grow up to 100 pounds and 20 inches in diameter, giving some hint as to why it's known as gacch-patha ("tree mutton") in Bengali. But the fibrous guts of this plant native to tropical Southeast Asia are increasingly cropping up in restaurants across the US, being hailed by some as the new "vegan meat."
Los Angeles food truck Plant Food for People specializes in Mission-style jackfruit tacos. Owners Jeremy and Genise Castaneda say they felt inspired to make a Mexican dish after seeing a photo of a BBQ jackfruit sandwich. "I think a lot of people are turned off by overly processed 'fake' meats," says Genise. "Sometimes the texture is there, but the taste is a little weird, or vice versa. With jackfruit, the texture is naturally stringy, fibrous, and meaty. It looks like a familiar animal-based product, yet it's a fruit that's just shredded, so it appeals to everyone. I figured all I needed was a great marinade and that would be the magic formula! Add a few different types of salsas, and you've got a delicate, balanced flavor profile with a lot of depth, similar to a traditional carnitas taco."
LA chain Sage Vegan Bistro has served jackfruit dishes for years. Organix, a vegan deli in Highland Park, just introduced jackfruit-based barbacoa-style sopes. Silverlake's Samosa House and LA's popular India Sweets and Spices both offer jackfruit curry on their daily buffets.
Jackfruit's rep goes beyond West Coast vegetarian establishments, though. Baltimore's Blue Pit BBQ & Whiskey Bar opened less than a year ago and has already gained some notoriety for the one vegan item on their menu—a pulled pork-style sandwich known to freak out some vegans. "We have had people think that our jackfruit sandwich was pork and that they were served the wrong thing. Before we serve it, we put it in a hot oven so the sugars in the sauce caramelize and give it an almost chewy texture," explains chef/owner Dave Newman. He says he had never used jackfruit in all his years of cooking, until a friend who'd been traveling mentioned it. He experimented with jackfruit before adding to the menu and has been pleasantly surprised by all the attention it's grabbed. Local regular Kassy Mattingly describes his creation as having "great texture with just the right amount of spicy kick," adding "I appreciate that the owners look out for vegetarians with an option that doesn't feel like an afterthought."
It proved a wise decision for the meat-centric business. "There are a lot of vegetarians and vegans in the neighborhood and a lot of our friends don't eat meat. We wanted to provide something for everyone so it was easy for large groups to come and eat," says Newman. As for technique, he shares that they use the jackfruit from a can, packed in water, not in syrup. "The way we use it works better when it's young, and it's almost more like a vegetable than a fruit. The part that we serve is the part you throw away in a mature jackfruit."
The older, au naturel jackfruit has its admirers, too. Justin Valis, a vegan for 12 years who has been hosting "fruitlucks" (like potlucks—with fruit) in Los Angeles, says a high percentage of his calories come from fruit. "I discovered jackfruit about five years ago when I met fruitarian Mike Arnstein and learned about Doug Graham's 80/10/10 diet," he says. Raw jackfruit is both delicious and efficient. "It can be a main meal," says Valis. "It's calorically dense, has a lot of sugar that gives a lot of calories, and pound for pound it's pretty affordable in LA, especially if it's ripe." His fellow picnickers often bring latex gloves to aid in pulling the fruit apart because things can get sticky.
Ben Benulis, a raw vegan for year and a half, has eaten a lot of jackfruit since moving to LA from Texas. He says he first heard about it there from the online forum 30 Bananas a Day. He found it at a local Asian grocery store but was bummed when the $60 fruit got ripe "too fast" before he could eat it all. In LA he gets it from local wholesalers, who sell it at 70 cents a pound, rather than $2. "It tastes like Juicy Fruit gum and has an almost meat-like consistency," he notes. "It can fill you up without eating a ton of it." He credits the large Asian population in LA for easy access to the fruit while surmising that most of what's sold in California may actually be grown in Mexico.
Robby Barbaro, operations manager of Forks Over Knives and the man behind Mindful Diabetic, is a self-described "Type 1 Diabetic living a whole food, fruit-based lifestyle" who first learned of jackfruit when he picked it from a tree in south Florida. He says it's now one of his favorites because it's a great food for diabetics. "People are always afraid of fruit having too much sugar, and this is not the case," he says. "It has a lot of fiber and water in it, which shows why it's not an issue for diabetics—the sugar is absorbed at a healthy pace." The only downside, he says, is that it's a bit of pain to wrangle with a knife, so sometimes he buys it pre-cut.
The fleshy orange bulbs are what he and most fruit lovers go for, but some people roast the seeds, too. On top of the tastiness, scientists say this under-appreciated fruit might even be key to solving world hunger. Is today its day in the sun?