Scent of a Jackfruit
The largest tree-growing fruit in the world thrives in sultry climes, but is barely celebrated in India, its country of origin
Ratna Raman Delhi
From my school friend's kitchen windows in Paris I see the uppermost tip of the Eiffel Tower. The rest of it is blocked by an ivy-covered wall. At the base of the large windows sits a thin ledge and the afternoon sunlight streams in, lighting up plump jackfruit seeds that have been put out to dry. The Eiffel Tower is immediately displaced from my scrutiny as I stare incredulously. "You get jackfruit in Paris?" I ask her, feeling that I have somehow arrived at the magical Goblin Market of Christina
Rossetti, where unseasonal fruits are conjured up in unlikely locations by strange inhabitants.
Exotic fruit from the orient such as the mango, the pineapple, the pomegranate and even the loquat have long been the subject of discussion, highlighting the magical, the ingenuous, the fabulous and the other in literature written in English. Dr Faustus's most wholesome display of magical prowess is at the moment when he conjures up fruit difficult to come by in cold England in Christopher Marlowe's play. Andrew Marvell, the 17th century poet with an abiding interest in horticulture, identifies rare fruit in the Bermudas and hails this newfound imperial transit point for English adventurers heading towards the New World as the new Eden. Loquats, another delicate oriental fruit finds mention in Shakespeare's Othello.
Fruit seems to fall between two counters, the known, the familiar and thereby sanctioned, and the strange, the unfamiliar and therefore forbidden. Very few modern occidental narratives touch upon the jackfruit, so a chance encounter with this native from the Indian shores in the heart of Paris is nothing short of momentous. In the modern world, the durian and the jackfruit apparently remain difficult to transport because of the strong smell they emit. Odd objection this, coming from cultures that have steadily drowned or suppressed body odours through all manner of effulgent fragrances.
In the ancient world, where presumably noses were more discerning and stomachs far more adventurous, the jackfruit finds repeated mention. Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder speak of the jackfruit as indigenous to India as far back as 100 AD.1 Friar John of Florence describes the jackfruit in 1350 comparing its size to that of a lamb and records its being cut open with an axe to reveal "a pulp of surpassing flavour".2
Yet the jackfruit is a rather unlikely fruit, barely embraced in its glorious entirety even in the country of its origin. It has a rather strange name in the English lexicon, corrupted from the Malayalam 'chakka' to an anglicized 'jack'(repeat chakka to yourself twenty times at a moderate pace to comprehend how this shift in phonetics could have come about).
The jackfruit presents a forbidding exterior. It is a rather peculiar looking large oval or oblong mass, with a tough spiky green rind. The tough green spikes soften and the skin of the jackfruit turns yellowy brown as it ripens. The ripe exterior approximates to the closely packed five-sided epithelial cell-structures with a small central nucleus that we drew in biology class, pretending all the while that our microscopes actually revealed this form to us.
The tree is referred to as pala in Tamil Nadu and is abundantly harvested inside individual homes. The fruit of the pala tree (plapazham), however, is rather unwieldy. The jackfruit is the largest tree-growing fruit anywhere in the world and tales abound of single fruits weighing as much as 80 lbs. I must confess that the largest jackfruits I have seen only approximated to modest weights of up to 25 lbs. It requires plucking from the tree by more than a single hand, despite the fact that the fruits grow close to the trunk or on branches leading directly away from the trunk.
The most endearing aspect of the jackfruit tree is its comical appearance, stooping with fruit that look rather like unsightly giant warts, but possess a dense texture and flavour that defies expectation
Thriving in hot and humid temperatures, and among the most ancient of our indigenous trees, the pala finds mention in Kapilar's Akam poetry written in the Sangam Period.3 Often referred to as 'mu-k-kanigai' (three fruit), the plapazham, the mango and the banana forge a fruit triumvirate since the hoary days of the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas of undivided South India, and are celebrated in both prose and verse. The tree is now a well-weathered inhabitant of the Western Ghats, Karnataka,
Kerala, Maharashtra and West Bengal, and has travelled to destinations
such as Sri Lanka, Philippines, Jamaica and Malaysia.
Jackfruit consumption follows distinct and different patterns in the regions above and below the Vindhyas. In North India, the unripe jackfruit is a great delicacy. Vegetable vendors bring it in at the start of the summer season and everyone in the Indo-Gangetic plain cooks this fleshy vegetable, tendrils, seeds and unripe casings all. Katthal, as it is popularly known, is a prized vegetable. Vegetable vendors specially equipped with sharp iron knives and polythene are adept
carvers who deftly heft off the scaly rind and bag the innards, enabling speedier cooking.