Late last year, after 18 years of litigation, a senior government official in Kerala, south-west India was given a prison sentence after being convicted of theft. The object he stole was government property, and it was so large he had to have it cut up to get it home. A piece of art, perhaps? A precious metal? Actually, it was a 40-year-old jackfruit tree, and, once you’ve tasted its fruit, you begin to understand why he did it. To say the jackfruit is big is an understatement. It is the largest tree-borne fruit on the planet – it isn’t unusual to come across beasts weighing up to 35kg in South America and South-east Asia. And it has been hailed as a “miracle crop” because of its size, and resistance to pests and drought. And its nutritional credentials are also impressive: researchers have suggested it could replace wheat, corn and other staple crops that may come under threat because of climate change.
Once you get through its tough, green, knobbly exterior, you’re hit with a faint whiff of onion, sticky sap and odd looking seed pods that taste like a cross between a pineapple and a pear. So far, so fruity. But what really sets the jackfruit apart is what it can do to savoury dishes, especially its ability to imitate pulled pork after several hours on the hob.
Entertainment magazine E! cited it as a “hot new vegan ingredient” after spotting it taking pork belly’s place in baos (steamed buns) at Susan Feniger’s Street Food in LA. In London, vegan street-food and supper-club contingent Club Mexicanauses it in burritos and tacos to delicious effect. It’s their most popular dish by far, and suppliers are struggling to keep up with demand. Cook and owner Meriel Armitage says that customers often think it’s meat and are “always amazed it isn’t pulled pork”. She learned about the ingredient when working at one of London’s oldest vegan cafes. “It has been used for years by veterans of the vegan scene, but it has been kept a bit of a chef’s secret”. Pulled jackfruit is made from the younger fruit – “green jackfruit”, widely sold in tins and, thankfully, much easier to carry home from work than a bad smelling lump the size of a child. Meat substitutes are 10 a penny these days, ranging from gluten based seitan, to soy-based tofu, to the wide variety of disturbingly realistic meat-flavoured Quorn products on offer. But jackfruit wins hands down. This all-natural, non processed ingredient has fibrous flesh that can take on almost any flavour – green jackfruit can replace carnitas in tacos, braised beef in burritos, spiced lamb topping for flatbreads.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, although, with jackfruit, that can prove difficult when the eater harbours deep suspicions about its meaty appearance. One host on American network WISH-TV refused to believe his barbecue jackfruit slider was vegan, and, through mouthfuls of sandwich, called the guest chef who prepared the dish a liar.
Get hold of a few cans – you can find it in Asian food stores and the world-food shelves in many big supermarkets – and give it a try. (But go for the green jackfruit, not the kind in syrup.) And if you happen to share dinners with an anti-vegetarian, they never have to know.
Jackfruit tacos from Club Mexicana Photograph: Annie Morris
Club Mexicana’s bbq pulled jackfruit
2 jalapeños, finely chopped
2 tbsp vegetable oil
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp chilli powder
2 tsp cumin
0.5 tsp cayenne
125ml lime juice (more if you like it tangy)
1 cup dark brown sugar
4 tins of jackfruit in brine
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp dijon mustard
Fry the garlic & jalapeños in oil for a minute. Add all the spices, stir and cook until fragrant (a minute or so). Add ketchup, lime and brown sugar. Stir until all the sugar has melted. Partially cover and keep cooking on a low heat until sauce has thickened to the consistency of ketchup.
Drain and thoroughly rinse the tinned jackfruit. Use your hands to tear the strands of jackfruit from the harder core. The fruit will come apart very easily. Put the pulled jackfruit into a bowl and put the cores into another bowl. Once everything has been pulled apart use a knife to finely chop the harder cores. It doesn’t matter if these are still a bit chunky once chopped as it adds more texture to the dish.
Heat oil in pan and add the pulled jackfruit. Cook until it gets a bit grey and loses some moisture. Add the dijon mustard and stir in. Add a little water if it starts to stick to the pan.
Add about half the BBQ sauce (more if you want a very sticky dish) and stir in to coat. Cook until it’s almost starting to get a little crispy and sticking to the pan a little.
Spoon on top of warm corn tacos and top with cos lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, a squeeze of fresh lime and a sprinkle of coriander.