The fruit that stands in for meat

Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I’m usually a pretty adventurous eater, but when some boxes of vacuum-packed jackfruit in various flavors landed on my desk, I was skeptical.

Yuck, I thought. That looks like tuna fish. But maybe my son Jack would eat it, I reasoned, as he is always on the prowl for gluten-free dishes.

Nope. Last time I looked in his refrigerator, the package of “sweet and smokey” flavored jackfruit was still languishing on a shelf, behind a half-eaten carton of Chinese food.

“It’s too weird,” he told me.

Jackfruit has been turning up on more than a few menus at national restaurants such as Bahama Breeze, where it’s paired with corn and black bean salsa as a filling for tacos. As someone who’s supposed to keep up on all the latest food trends, I figured I’d have to take the plunge. Here’s what I found.

For the uninitiated, jackfruit brings to mind monkey balls (also known as Osage orange or hedge apples) or maybe just alien brains, with its spiky green shell. You can buy it fresh, canned, in refrigerated pouches and dried into strips or chips.

The largest tree-borne fruit in the world, jackfruit can grow up to 80 pounds or more, but you’re more likely to find specimens weighing much less (think watermelon-sized) in specialty grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Common in South and Southeast Asian cuisines, it’s also available in Asian and Indian markets.

Fresh fruit: Cutting a fresh jackfruit isn’t easy — it has a thick skin that brings to mind a rhino hide and a sticky sap that will gunk up your knife and fingers — making it one of the most intimidating fruits.

It’s also fairly expensive. At Whole Foods, where the average jackfruit weighs in at about 15 to 20 pounds, it runs $3.99 a pound or $60 to $80. (Although you can buy a cut for $5.)

The fleshy bulbs of fruit inside the fibrous innards hold round, chestnut-like seeds that can be roasted or boiled.

The fruit itself, which has a strong, musky fragrance, can be eaten out of hand, blended into a smoothie, baked into desserts, mixed with shaved ice or dehydrated into a munchable snack.

“Disgusting,” said my husband after googling it. “If you were on an island, and there was jackfruit, and there was anything else to eat — anything — you would not eat jackfruit.”

Well, maybe. My editor, who grew up in India where the fruit is thought to have originated, gets all starry-eyed when I asked her about the pods in the tropical fruit.

“It slithers down your throat,” she says. “But it’s a delicious slithering because it’s so sweet and smooth. It’s one of my favorite fruits.”

Packaged options: But what if you don’t want to go to the trouble or expense of a fresh jackfruit? The much-cheaper canned or packaged varieties are an easy way to dive in and test the waters.

Said to be the inspiration for Juicy Fruit gum, a fresh ripe fruit tastes like a cross between pineapples and bananas. Ready-to-eat varieties, conversely, are made from “young” jackfruit, or those harvested before they’re fully ripened. So it’s less sweet and has a completely different texture.

When cooked and broken apart, the texture is similar to pulled pork or shredded chicken. Which makes it popular with vegans and vegetarians who seek a meaty mouthfeel but find other plant-based proteins such as tofu and seitan unsatisfying.

Another plus is its neutral taste. Like tofu, it takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked in. “The longer it simmers, the more the flavor and texture develop,” says Daniel Staackmann, whose Chicago company Upton’s Naturals launched the first seasoned and ready-to-eat jackfruit in the United States.

Staackmann first tasted jackfruit in 2010 at a Nepalese restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, in a somewhat traditional curry. Intrigued, he started doing research and learned that people also were using the fruit in barbecue and tacos. But at the time, you could only find it in cans at Asian markets, with tons of added sodium and preservatives. So he set out to create a clean product that would be ready to go right off the shelf.

Introduced in 2015, Upton’s Naturals jackfruit is now available in a half-dozen flavors, including Sriracha, Thai curry, chili lime and its undoctored “original.” It is harvested, seasoned and packaged in Thailand, where it is grown. It costs $4.99 at Whole Foods.

“Fresh is expensive and difficult, and you can’t make a sandwich out of it,” he says.

Unlike canned jackfruit, which has to be cooked for a while before serving, Upton’s varieties are retort packaged (in a process similar to canning) into a finished product. It took me only about 20 minutes to turn unflavored jackfruit into a spicy-sweet barbecue sandwich.

Jackfruit has been eaten as a meat alternative for thousands of years, and so Staackmann hopes that products such as his will help launch the fruit into the mainstream.

Ginger Tamarind BBQ Jackfruit

You could easily cut the amount of tamarind concentrate here in half and still have a dish that tastes great. I added a little Sriracha to the sauce to bring up the spice level.

Barbecue sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 inch fresh ginger, grated

1/2 cup tomato paste

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

3/4 cup tamarind concentrate

1/3 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

Sriracha mayo

1/4 cup mayonnaise

Sriracha sauce to taste


1 (10.6-ounce) package Upton’s Naturals Original Jackfruit

Squeeze of lime

4 burger buns

To prepare barbecue sauce, heat sesame oil over low heat in medium saucepan. Add garlic and saute for 30 seconds.

Add fresh ginger, tomato paste, soy sauce, ground ginger, tamarind, and brown sugar; stir until smooth.

Slowly pour in water and apple cider vinegar, stirring constantly. Simmer until brown sugar dissolves and mixture begins to bubble.

Add jackfruit and cook for 5 more minutes. Add lime juice. Remove from heat and shred with two forks into pulled pork-like strands.

For Sriracha mayo, mix mayonnaise and preferred amount of Sriracha in a small bowl.

Toast burger buns, and spread a thin layer of Sriracha mayo on both sides. Then add a scoop of barbecue jackfruit.

Serve with coleslaw, fries, chips and/or a side salad

Serves 4.

— Upton’s Naturals

Jackfruit Potpie

This recipe puts a plant-based spin on a family favorite. I used phyllo sheets instead of puff pastry, but you also could do a traditional scratch pastry crust.

1 yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tablespoon olive oil

2 cups vegetable or chicken stock

1 can (14 ounces) jackfruit in brine, drained and shredded

Handful fingerling potatoes (about 5), sliced

Handful baby carrots (about 6), sliced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup kale, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup milk

20 sheets phyllo dough, thawed

Melted butter for layering

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In large pot over medium-high heat, saute onion and garlic in olive oil. Cook until translucent and fragrant. Add stock, jackfruit, potatoes, carrots, sage, rosemary, pepper and salt. Boil until vegetables are fork tender, about 15 minutes.

Stir in kale. Make a slurry by whisking together flour and milk. Stir in and simmer until semi-thickened.

To make pie, overlap 10 sheets of phyllo in a 9-inch pie pan or cast-iron skillet, buttering the sheets as you layer them in the pie pan. Pour chicken mixture on phyllo dough. Top with remaining 10 sheets, overlapping the phyllo and brushing each layer with butter. Score top.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

Serves 6.

— Adapted from Cooking Light

Demystifying the jackfruit

If you buy canned jackfruit to use as a meat alternative, you probably want to make sure it is packed in brine or water instead of syrup. The ones in syrup are sweet.

Jackfruit’s pulp is mostly water, so don’t look to it as a source of protein. It is, however, a good source of dietary fiber and also is rich in vitamin C, calcium and potassium, which helps muscle function, hydration, and the maintenance of healthy blood pressure. Plus, it’s extremely low-cal, with only about 150 calories per 1-cup serving.

Use it in tacos, burritos, enchiladas, curries, dumplings, salads, over rice or in any recipe where you might use meat.