Food by VICE

This Man Is Trying to Save India's Food Future with Jackfruit

Journalist Shree Padre has been working for years to convince Indians that jackfruit—the thorny South Asian fruit that works equally well in desserts and as a meat substitute—should become a staple part of their diets.

by Prathap Nair
Oct 7 2016, 6:00pm

A ripe jackfruit can weigh up to 50 kilograms. Photo by the author.

Shree Padre doesn't exactly remember how his interest in jackfruit—the enormous thorny fruit found in the plains of India, among other areas of South and Southeast Asia—took shape. The 62-year-old journalist recalls growing up in a middle-class farming family in the south Indian coastal city of Kasargod in a house with more than a dozen jackfruit trees. Having spent his childhood in a household with an abundance of the fruit in season, it bothered him that so much of jackfruit grown in India is wasted. "Of the yield, we might have used only 10 percent," he recollects of his childhood.

But things are slowly changing now, due in large part to Padre's efforts.

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Ripe jackfruit is used in desserts in south Indian states. Photo by the author.

Somewhere along the line of his career as a journalist for three decades, he found the opportunity to give voice to the cause. Padre, based in the south Indian state of Kerala, also runs the 29-year-old Farm magazine Adike Patrike; he took up jackfruit's case ten years ago.

The magazine, which boasts a readership of 100,000, has published 14 special issues devoted to jackfruit, featuring successful jackfruit-related business stories from India's jackfruit-growing neighbours Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Philippines, Mexico, and Malaysia. Padre's newsletter reaches more than 200 jackfruit lovers across the world. In addition to that, he also administers a jackfruit WhatsApp group. His Facebook timeline overflows with information on jackfruit, unique jackfruit-based recipes—including jackfruit curry in a wrap and jackfruit payasam, a warm pudding—and where to order ready-to-cook jackfruit to be delivered at home. His e-book Forgotten Kalpavriksha highlights how jackfruit can be harnessed to benefit the food security issues of a growing population whose diet revolves around grain.

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Shree Padre works to promote jackfruit in India. Photo by the author.

So, why is jackfruit important for India?

With unpredictable weather conditions, India's monsoon-dependent agricultural practice is increasingly under duress. Deficient monsoons over the past couple of years, triggered by global warming and phenomena like El Nino, have brought on drought-like conditions in some areas. Drought is already a regular occurrence in many parts of the country, and experts predict that this will only become more common in the near future. Last year, India's agricultural output declined by nearly 5.5 percent, owing to a deficient monsoon, and the country's pulse imports have gone up this year. Though there is no reason for alarm at present, there is no denying that food security issues are looming.

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Processed jackfruit. Photo by Shree Padre.
jackfruit-poppadams-being-dried-pic_-shree-padre Jackfruit poppadams being dried. Photo by Shree Padre.

This is where jackfruit comes into play. Jackfruit has the potential to become a food crop because it requires less care and the trees are strong enough to withstand drought-like conditions. In Kerala, raw jackfruit is widely used as a meat substitute or when grains are in short supply. Even its seeds are used in everyday cooking. "It carries sufficient evidence to show that jackfruit can be a source of local food security," says Padre. "This is the time to harness the benefits of jackfruit as farming in India is in great crisis now."

According to Padre, India is probably the largest producer of the fruit in the world. Yet, much of this goes to waste, estimated at 70 percent of total production. But in the absence of statistics, jackfruit numbers are hard to verify.

"There was no one to uphold and narrate the positive aspects and potential of jackfruit as a wonderful food and a tool for rural economy augmentation and more employment," Padre explains. He laments that no one takes jackfruit seriously, and that's true: Southern India has an abundance of jackfruit and almost each house has a tree in rural areas of Kerala, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. Despite this, there is no organized jackfruit sector that monitors and promotes jackfruit products.

"Besides, there is a serious inferiority complex about this tree," says Padre. It is commonly referred to as "poor man's fruit" in the country. "What people are not aware of is that it is a rich man's fruit in the West, slowly gaining significance as an effective meat substitute," he notes.

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Jackfruit chips being packed. Photo by Shree Padre.

In the past decade, since he started crusading for jackfruit, awareness seems to have grown. For instance, Padre says the town of Panruti in Tamil Nadu, which he calls "India's jackfruit paradise," has transformed into a "no-wastage" town. As demand increases, the fruits harvested here fetch a good price (a 50-kilogram fruit is priced at INR 1750, or about $28 US) during a season that lasts from December to June. Though off-season production is limited, jackfruit is not entirely a seasonal item, and is available almost year-round in many states of India.

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Jackfruit ice cream. Photo by Shree Padre.

Padre believes people's attitudes toward the fruit are changing. "Hundreds of jackfruit festivals conducted in three to four states are the biggest testimony for this," he says. Two organizations that promote and monitor jackfruit production—the Jackfruit Promotion Council and the Jackfruit Promotion Consortium—were launched in Kerala in 2011.

Today, there are more than two dozen outfits producing jackfruit, and its value-added products, in Kerala alone. Jackfruit modak, a sweet made by Maharashtra-based organization Sindhusfurti, is sold in big malls and hypermarkets across India.

Padre relates similar success stories about how the fruit is helping augment the rural economy. He speaks of a housewife in Sirsi, Karnataka, who runs a successful business manufacturing jackfruit bars; of a farmer who exports jackfruit pulp used in ice cream; and of a labourer who runs a jackfruit poppadom industry in Moodabidri, Karnataka.

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Women in a jackfruit processing plant. Photo by Shree Padre.
ready-to-eat-jackfruit-pic_-shree-padre Ready-to-eat jackfruit. Photo by Shree Padre.

There has been widespread coverage in the local media about Padre's efforts, spurring renewed interest in jackfruit. "Consumption of jackfruit in rural households has increased. In socially important events like weddings, preparations of jackfruit are increasingly favoured. More shops have started selling jackfruits," he says.

The phenomenal information gap that once kept jackfruit on the sidelines is now dwindling with Padre's sustained efforts. "Though there still is a long way to go to bridge that gap, through media and networking we are trying to narrow it down," he adds.

Despite all his efforts to create awareness, Padre believes that jackfruit has not yet received the attention it deserves in India, even though threats of food security caused by climate change have become a tangible reality in the country.

"A people's movement for jackfruit is on," he says optimistically. "Albeit delayed, the countdown for jackfruit development in India has begun."