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Nutrition

How jackfruit became the trendiest vegan meat alternative in the West

November 16th 2018 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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It’s fat-free, low calorie, rich in potassium and it’s replacing the likes of soya protein as the vegan meat swap of choice, but it hasn’t always been so hip. Here’s how jackfruit went from ‘pauper’s fruit’ to Instagram fodder

If you’ve never heard of jackfruit, steel yourself, because it’s popping up in a taco, burger, sandwich or pizza at a high street joint near you soon and it’s already well established on our supermarket shelves, albeit in a form fairly far off its original state. From Pizza Express’ marinated jackfruit Vegan Puttanesca Pizza to the Gourmet Burger Kitchen’s ‘Jack in a Bun’ and Waitrose Vegan Hoisin Jackfruit Parcels, meaty-textured unripe jackfruit is the latest plant-based food craze catering to vegans, vegetarians, meat-free Mondayers and carnivores alike, and given our increasing appetites for plant derived meat alternatives (26 per cent of us prefer meat-free products to be plant-based rather than contain eggs or dairy according to Mintel), jackfruit looks set for stratospheric success à la the avocado.

The rapid rise of veganism aside (The Vegan Society estimates that there are currently 540,000 vegans in the UK), Mintel reports that 34 per cent of meat-eating Brits have reduced their meat consumption this year, citing benefits such as improving health, saving money and making more effort to protect the environment. For this group, however, they want their meat swaps to truly fill the gap - in short, lentils and tofu alone won’t wash. 26 per cent want vegan or vegetarian meat substitutes to taste like meat, while 25 per cent of 16-34 year olds favour meat-free steaks and burgers that ‘bleed’. We may be making moves to cut down on our carnivorous ways, but old habits die hard apparently. Which is where jackfruit comes in…

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Jackfruit is fat-free, low-calorie, high in blood sugar regulating potassium and boasts more protein, iron and calcium than other tropical fruits such as mango, papaya and banana, but it’s the substantial, stringy texture of jackfruit ‘meat’ that makes it so popular as a stand-in for pork, chicken, lamb and beef. When eaten before it’s ripe, it tastes bland yet carries flavour well in stews, sauces, stir-fries and curries and the fact that it’s unprocessed and brings antioxidants to the table makes it preferable to soya derived meat alternatives for many, although it’s worth bearing in mind that jackfruit is low in protein when compared to many meat substitutes, and of course meat itself. In the UK you’ll principally find it sold in brine in pouches or tins, as its natural state is quite something to grapple with...

The largest fruit in the world, the spiky shelled, pungent smelling jackfruit hails from the East, namely southwest India and Asia, and Thailand, which is how I first encountered it by way of my half-Thai other half Nick. His Thai mum, Suwanna, is a restaurant owner, cook and passionate foodie and gave me some insight into how jackfruit is traditionally prepared, eaten and perceived in Thailand, away from the hipster street-food incarnations over here…

It’s a “lucky” fruit

“The jackfruit tree is an auspicious tree. This is because of the name; in Thai it is called "kanoon" - with the latter syllable, "noon" sounding very similar if not the same to "supporting". Many people all over Thailand, if they have a large garden, will want to grow a jackfruit tree because they believe it will "support" their business and in that way bring prosperity.”

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Nick's granny eating ripe jackfruit

It’s both sweet and savoury

“In Bangkok and south of the capital jackfruit is eaten like any other tropical fruit, when it is ripe and yellow-orange in colour. It’s popular in desserts such as Namkhaeng Sai, which is shaved ice with syrup or coconut milk combined with fruits such as jackfruit.

“In the Northern provinces, however, eating young jackfruit is more traditional. When the trees start bearing fruit (100-150 fruits per tree sometimes), some will fall off ‘young’, plus the owner of the tree will remove fruits that "don't look good" aesthetically. This is because each fruit can weigh up to 30kg, and if there are 150 fruits on a tree. That’s 4.5 tonnes in total - if you don't remove some then the branches could fall off at random and damage houses, dogs and people.

“These young jackfruit are then used in savoury cooking. Mostly, they are used in four dishes - gaeng kanoon, which is a young jackfruit curry combined with vegetables. Sometimes it’s pounded in a pestle and mortar with shallots and chilli and used as an accompaniment or dip. It can also be blanched quickly and eaten in Thai salads. The curry and salads are actually very rarely found on restaurant menus, and the dip pretty much never - these dishes are in the main made in the household. It’s common to eat the seeds too - in Thailand you would blanch the large seeds in salted water, then peel the brown husk off and eat them like nuts.”

It’s affordable but it’s not for everyone…

“People eat it fairly regularly, but I wouldn't call it a staple part of the diet and it’s not an ingredient they would rely on for nutrition necessarily. It is a traditional food in the sense that people have been eating it for a long time, both young and ripe, but it’s most often eaten in provincial areas and north of Bangkok. It’s not at all expensive in Thailand either.

“In addition, not everyone likes it - the ripe fruit especially definitely isn’t neutral - it actually has quite a strong, sweet smell (not at all like durian but still strong), which puts some people off. More recently there have been articles talking about how healthy jackfruit, but it’s worth bearing in mind that when it’s eaten ripe it does contain a lot of sugar so it shouldn't be eaten in great quantities. I love it and so does my family, but it can be a divisive fruit!”

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If you’re looking to incorporate jackfruit into your diet in its unripe form, check ingredients labels for added sugar and salt and be aware that when prepared BBQ style it’s often slathered in high sugar sauces for flavour. Ditto if it’s coated in flour or batter and fried, it’s probably not the holier than thou vegan health food you imagined, which is definitely not a reason not to eat it but just something to be aware of. If you’re preparing it at home, opt for jackfruit in water or brine, rather than syrup (otherwise you’re essentially attempting a meat-free curry with tinned peaches...probably not what you were going for). Rinse away any brine before you cook with it and, as with meat, slow cooking makes it more tender. It’s a vehicle for flavour, so marinade, infuse and stew away. Mintel Global Food Analyst Melanie Zanoza Bartelme dubbed jackfruit “the star of the vegan barbeque this summer”, but we reckon it has just as much potential for winter comfort food - just be aware that it’s not a ‘like for like’ swap for meat and you may need to bump up your protein and iron intake elsewhere.

The vegan food trend that’s courting carnivores

Follow Anna on Instagram @annyhunter and Suwanna @suwannathairestaurant

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