Scent of a Jackfruit

Published: March 24, 2012 - 17:29 Updated: March 24, 2012 - 17:36

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.

In Uttar Pradesh katthal is made with onions and garlic, while in the Punjab an addition of tomatoes make quite a splash. Both variations, garnished with chopped coriander, make for delicious katthal sabzis to go with hot chappatis. Reluctant initiates to the vegetable are conspiratorially informed that kattthal tastes exactly like meat. The Bengalis, who have a way with all exotic vegetables, make steamed katthal with a delicate spiced gravy that works very well with long grained white rice. There is also katthal pulao and also delicious katthal pickle that adds sumptuousness to any meal, but this more or less concludes the extent of the North India's engagement with the jack-vegetable.

Most people in South India are generically programmed to wait for the fruiting of the plapazham in the hot summer months and for occasions when a large ripe fruit can be the highlight of festivities. ( I suspect that sweet jackfruit varieties grow mostly in the south.) When all the cousins in the extended family collected under southern roofs for their vacations, it made sense to invest in a giant jackfruit. If you didn't lop it off from your own backyard, you purchased it at the local vegetable fair and carried it home in stately splendour, placing it on the kitchen counter or the dining table. Two or three aunts with well-oiled palms and large knives immediately fell upon the fruit.

This involved making a central gash, much in the manner that watermelons are cut, except that the jackfruit retaliates by secreting a gummy substance in protest. Eventually the hard rind is halved and from within each shell, embedded within creamy tendrils, little oblong cases of yellow fruit are extracted. A large jackfruit could have a hundred or more fruit cases. The colour varied from creamy custard yellow to a deep bright egg yolk yellow, and these succulent morsels would be devoured by the hungry hordes as soon as they were extricated. Only those who had seen over 500 moons waited patiently for the fruit to be deseeded and arranged on a plate with honey poured on it as a finishing sauce.

The jackfruit casing has large plump seeds inside, rather like stuffed ravioli. These are retrieved, washed and then put out to dry in the sun. These are stored for future use, to be steamed and eaten, or added to saambar in the manner of vadis and veththals (dried lentil dumplings and sun-dried, yoghurt-soaked berries and beans). They can also be pressure-cooked, peeled, chopped and eaten when topped with a garnish, rather in the manner of water chestnuts (singadas) cooked during the autumn navrathras. I found to my delight that steamed and ground into a fine paste, the seed lent itself to an exquisite halwa, which when roasted in ghee with sugar and saffron, gained a leverage reminiscent of the magnificent badam halwas of South India. Fully grown jackfruit segments make for very nice chips, especially when they are closer to fruition. The chips look rather like pressed flowers and are a distinctive seasonal snack that never allow for the long drawn out familiarity created by banana and tapioca chips.

If only this tree had captured the imagination of our  illustrators and had been accepted as a national icon, symbolizing diverse possibilities 

The aroma of jackfruits is deeply ensconced even in the memory of Indian elephants. Banana plantations notwithstanding, jackfruit trees are objects of desire for the herd on the move. At the army cantonment at Veenagudi, wild elephants enter compounds to forage and eat jackfruits in entirety, knobbly rind and all, according to residents. In distant Calicut the leaves of the chakka serve as choice goat fodder. Oftentimes, for special meals, dried leaf plates made of pala leaves would be made use of. Jackfruit leaf ash mixed in coconut oil is said to cure ulcers. The rind and pith are valued cattle feed, while the roots alleviate asthma.

The most endearing aspect of the jackfruit tree is its rather comical appearance, stooping with fruit that look rather like unsightly giant warts, but possess a dense texture and flavour that defies expectation. This little recognized tree lives in most parts of our country, often growing without ceremony in ordinary backyards. Yet it plays a singular role in enriching our lives by bringing Indian classical music into our hearths.

The seasoned timber provided by the jackfruit tree is not only used in furniture making, the rich grainy timbre of its wood enables the fashioning of musical instruments such as sitars, veenas, mridangams, tablas, and flutes. Jackwood is possibly the secret component in Stradivarius violins.4 If only this tree had captured the imagination of our illustrators and had been accepted as a national icon, symbolizing diverse possibilities! Its multifaceted capability has received little attention and what is worse is its marginalization in sketch, stylized pictorial drawings and context. There are, for instance, very few stories woven around the jackfruit tree, despite its veneration in select Skanda temples in Tamil Nadu. Often this tree recalls for me gifted, understated individuals in large families, who barely receive their due, but shoulder on regardless and carve out their own trajectory.

Wood of the jackfruit tree is possibly the secret component in  Stradivarius violins 

Growing, ripening, cooking, consumption, preservation, and collateral use as fodder and furniture is an ongoing aspect of jackfruit culture in India. In recent times, the rind has been processed to extract pectin. The fruit is phyto-nutrient dense and has been identified as anti-carcinogenic, hangover curing and weight loss assisting. Ripe sacs of this delicious fruit are rather delicate in temperament and have a limited shelf life in the summer season. To prolong jackfruit joys it becomes mandatory to salvage this volatile fruit for future culinary excitement. Jaggery is added to ripe fruit pods and cooked into a thick pulpy paste.

Jammy jackfruit, the end product subsequently marketed, allows for tremendous gastronomic overtures. Reliable under refrigeration, jackfruit jam fills pies and tops cheesecakes admirably. It effectively replaces the jam in swiss rolls and makes for a wonderful payasam (kheer) with milk of the coconut or the cow. Folded rice crepes, into which with fresh chopped jackfruits and honey or jackfruit paste have been lodged, make for a delightful and exotic breakfast option. On the menu as a dessert item, both the dense fruity texture of the fresh fruit and the treacly cooked paste make for heady intoxication, effortlessly edging crepe suzettes into oblivion.

1 In the section on the jackfruit from the book Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits Excluding the Banana, Coconut, Pineapple, Citrus Fruits, Olive, and Fig by Wilson Popenoe, Macmillan, 1974.

2 The Travels of John De Marignolli 1339 -1353. John, a priest from Florence documents in his narrative the abundance of the banana, the coconut and the jackfruit at Seylan. Digitized from Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither: Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, vol. II (London: Printed for the Hakluyt society, 1913-16), in the section titled 'Adam's Garden and the Fruits Thereon'.

3 The Sangam period is located roughly between 3000 BC and 7000 AD. According to KT Achaya, the jackfruit also finds mention around 400 BC in Buddhist and Jain literature. In Indian Food: A Historical Companion, OUP, 1998, he points out that poetry in the Sangam period records the serving of jackfruit to wandering minstrels and a lover compares his beloved to the dainty stalk of the jackfruit.

4 Saragur Srinidhi drew my attention to exchanges on the net claiming that the grainy wood in Stradivarius violins has now been identified as jackfruit wood. Antonio Stradivarius had been long suspected of using a secret wood for his violins.

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

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