My doctor was pretty serious this time. My yearly physical has often included the phrase “You should cut down on red meat,” but this time he was much more direct, “You need to cut down on red meat.” “Blasphemy,” I thought, with my Homer Simpson-like brain visualizing the big, juicy steak that I’d grill for dinner that night — a celebration of the fact that I’d gotten a physical for the fourth year running. “In fact,” my doctor added, “you should consider cutting red meat out of your diet entirely.” The nerve of this well-educated physician.
Of course, I knew he was right. My cholesterol is higher than the lawn section at a Dave Matthews Band concert and, as such, I’ve been a man of white meat for the past seven months. I cheated with three small steaks during that time, and I keep track of that number because it’s significantly less than “at least one a week.” But it didn’t help enough, as my latest bloodwork came back with grease dripping from it.
“That’s it,” my doctor said, as if he was sitting inside the Pope-mobile, sensing danger. “You’re done with red meat until I tell you otherwise.”
So, what’s a meat-loving guy to do when his favorite meal is ripped away from him by some jerk who is trying to increase his life expectancy? Turns out all you ever really have to do is say that you can’t eat red meat and nutrition “experts” will come running like you just fired the bat signal into the night sky. One brief mention to a fitness-minded friend of mine resulted in: “You should try jackfruit.” Another friend offered me a dozen or so easy fish recipes (which he clearly just copied from Pinterest) before adding: “Also, check out jackfruit.” It was like one of those old movie scenes where I’m lost in a strange city and every neon sign reads, “Jackfruit!”
Okay, so what the hell is jackfruit?
The problem with questions as headlines (especially those unintentionally laden with innuendo) is that they’re like inviting vampires into your home. The point of this is self-discovery — in that I’d never heard of jackfruit before people started telling me I had to try it. But once you ask a question like this in this time of Internet Know-It-Alls, you can expect everyone to tell you their version of the truth, in addition to: “Um, excuse me, but jackfruit is only the most important fruit in the world and it’s going to save modern society, thank you very much.”
Having no clue where to find jackfruit or what to do with these big, green, spiky melon-looking things, I called upon Upton’s Naturals founder Daniel Staackmann to give me a crash course in all-things jackfruit. He was much more helpful and personable than a routine Google search, starting with the basics.
Jackfruit is a type of tree that is very well-endowed when it comes to fruit. You’ll know a jackfruit tree when you spot its big, old fruitballs hanging out for the world to see, as if it’s bragging about having the biggest fruit of any tree. Impressively, a single jackfruit can grow to be 100 pounds, and it has plenty of uses. When ripe, the yellowish jackfruit’s taste is comparable to “pear, pineapple, banana and papaya,” but I’m here to talk about the unripe stuff, which supposedly tastes like pulled pork or chicken. Fruit that tastes like meat? I’m taking crazy pills!
Staackmann’s company claims to be “the first company to make pre-seasoned, heat-and-serve, natural jackfruit nationally available to the U.S. market.” That’s certainly better than “Try our jackfruit if you dare!” — so I decided to take the plunge. First, though, I needed more history on this supposedly popular fruit, like…
Where does jackfruit come from?
When it came time to find my own big green fruit, all signs pointed to my local Vietnamese grocer, as Staackmann told me that jackfruit is quite popular in Southeast Asian cuisine. If you want to go all the way back to the roots of this fruit (to use what I’m calling the best-food-pun-of-2016), turn to India, where jackfruit has been around for as many as 6,000 years. At the very least, the Indian Vegan offers, Buddhist texts show that jackfruit was a favorite as early as 400 BC. Today, it is grown throughout Southeast Asia and even Brazil.
“The first time that I had jackfruit as a savory dish, it was at a Nepalese restaurant in a curry,” Staackmann recalled. “I really liked it, thought it was really interesting, and I started doing some research. People were talking about doing BBQ and tacos, essentially, and the only way you could get that product was in a can at a specialty food store. Most of the time those would have preservatives in them, and you have to take it home and cook it down for one to three hours. Which, you know, when you want a sandwich, you don’t want to screw around for hours. You want to heat it up and be done with it. We thought it would be great if we could be the first to market something that was ready to eat, jackfruit that is pre-seasoned, so we can eliminate all of the hassle.”
That explains the Upton’s origin story, but trying to pinpoint the rise of jackfruit in the U.S. is a little more tricky. In 2014, NPR reported that there was a new effort to promote jackfruit and the similar (but boringly-named) breadfruit throughout the world as a wonder food — to help countries facing food insecurity. Because an individual jackfruit is so large, a lot of it goes wasted, and so the belief is that countries and people who are in need of more food can take advantage of the size and feed more mouths.
As far as attention from mainstream food obsessives, jackfruit’s profile has blown up significantly in 2016, as companies like Upton’s and The Jackfruit Company are promoting the food not only for its versatility, but also its deliciousness as a meat alternative. (Because of that, it’s safe to assume that vegans have been dining on jackfruit for much longer than it’s been in the news cycle.)
How does a fruit taste like pulled pork?
Staackmann told me that a perfectly ripe jackfruit is actually the inspiration for the flavor of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, which is, at the risk of editorializing, the best flavor of gum. Again, as the Washington Post put it, the flavor is something like “pear, pineapple, banana and papaya,” which is great and I’ll try a ripe jackfruit one of these days when I can find one and carve it up, but for this experiment I was focused on the persistent claim that I could have my pulled pork and eat it, too.
In its unripe form, the flavor of the jackfruit is nothing like Juicy Fruit gum. Instead, I was assured over and over, it tastes exactly like meat that I love and crave on a daily basis. So, how do you tell the difference between an unripe jackfruit and the ripe, mature version? The easy answer is that it’s canned or packaged unripe, since most American grocers won’t sell unripe fruits, but if you get your hands on a real one, there are telltale signs.
“You can generally tell by how firm it is, and the size, too,” Staackmann said. “In its unripe stage it’s more firm, and once you crack it open it’s totally different. The mature fruit has these large seeds that are in there, and the fruit itself is like a yellow bulb. In the young fruit, everything is essentially white. None of the seeds have developed, the fruit hasn’t developed. It’s white shreddy-stuff. Some of the shredded parts are still there in the mature fruit, but they have a much different texture. You couldn’t boil those down or cook them in a way that’s going to give you the same results.”
Speaking of the seeds, the more adventurous and even ballsier food lovers among us can get an extra mile out of their jackfruit by knowing what to do with the seeds. “There’s a lot you can do with the fruit as well as the seeds,” Staackmann said. “If you boil the seeds and take the skins off, they’re almost like little roasted potatoes. I’ve heard of people using them as a gluten-free flour.”
What really made me curious, though, is wondering about whoever picked up the unripe fruit, took a bite, and announced, “You know, this might taste better cooked and smothered with BBQ sauce.” For now, I’ll leave that in the unsolved mystery files and focus on the results of my taste test.
Does jackfruit taste as good as pulled pork?
To conduct this experiment, I needed a little more than just my own basic cooking skills. In addition to the Upton’s samples, I also visited a local vegan joint, Dixie Dharma (which shares a shop with Valhalla bakery, maker of the greatest donuts in Orlando), to pick up their raved-about Carolina BBQ pulled pork sandwich. Just in case my jackfruit sandwich tasted like butt, to use a professional culinary term, I wanted to make sure I had a professionally-made Plan B so I didn’t completely ruin jackfruit for myself forever.
First up was the Upton’s Naturals BBQ flavor, since I’ve got experience making my own BBQ sandwich using the Trader Joe’s Sriracha and roasted garlic BBQ sauce (it is delicious and I highly recommend it). It’s important to note that the Upton’s jackfruit comes pre-seasoned, but if I was going swimming in unknown waters, I wanted to bring my own life preserver.
This is what the jackfruit looks like straight out of the package…
Important: It smelled exactly like BBQ meat, so we were off to a good start.
Since I was making a basic BBQ sandwich, I didn’t worry about sides or fancy bells and whistles like cheese and bacon. I only mention that because I don’t want you to think I don’t care about presentation as much as I do the taste. The sides are often as important as the main food, at least if you consider eating to be an art. As for preparing the jackfruit, the instructions say to heat it in a skillet for 5-7 minutes, but Staackmann told me the longer the better in terms of flavor.
“The longer you cook it, the more the flavor will develop with the sauces,” he said. “You can tweak the sauces a bit. If you like a sugary barbecue sauce, you can add sweetener. To get the texture you want, use a spatula to shred it up a little more.”
I cooked the jackfruit for 10 minutes just to be sure, since I’m a picky dude. Here’s what the jackfruit looked like when it was on the bun and ready to be crammed into my facehole…
The Verdict: Okay, this stuff was pretty good. Enough that I will definitely play around with it, add some fun ingredients like cheese and bacon, and most definitely toss it into a chili. In fact, as soon as I tried it, my first thought was, “Oh yeah, jackfruit chili is happening soon.” As for my simple sandwich, which only featured a conservative amount of additional BBQ sauce, I probably housed that thing in five bites, and nothing jumped out at me beyond the texture of the larger chunks. (The cool thing about that, if you’re like me and have texture issues with some foods, is that the jackfruit breaks up easily in the pan, and it really looks like shredded pork.)
Now, this isn’t to say that I’m going to cut the real deal pulled pork out of my diet entirely in the future, but I hadn’t been lied to. The people who told me jackfruit really tastes like pulled pork weren’t wrong. Staackmann himself gets two thumbs up for honesty in pitching his own product.
10/10, will eat jackfruit again and probably often.
Second, as promised, I tried a jackfruit Carolina BBQ sandwich prepared by an actual vegan chef who has taken the time to perfect this recipe. And I have to admit that I removed one of the ingredients, because the sandwich was supposed to have garlic pickles on it, and me and pickles go together like your aunt and political logic. The sandwich had some crispy onions on it too, reminding me that we should include crispy onions on just about everything except cereal. They also forced me to take a side, so obviously I had the mac and cheese, because what lunatic turns down mac and cheese?
The Verdict: This was like a rookie stepping up to the plate against Nolan Ryan in his prime. I took my first bite thinking, “Boo ya, here comes the pulled pork flavor!” and it wasn’t anything like that. In fact, it really didn’t taste like pulled pork at all, again because of the texture, but also because there was so many other flavors in this thing. Even without the garlic pickles, it still featured: crispy fried onions, arugula, preserved lemon, and Coca-Cola reduction on Texas toast (fun fact: I will forever say, “Arugula” like Steve Martin in My Blue Heaven). The sandwich was absolutely delicious, albeit not what I expected. To quote the warrior poet Guy Fieri, this thing was out of bounds.
Bottom line: If you try to pull a fast one on your friend who loves meat by putting some jackfruit on a bun, I think there’s a good chance he’ll be fooled. He won’t think it’s the best pulled pork he’s ever had, but I don’t think he’d notice. I almost wish that was how I discovered jackfruit, now that I think about it, but I’m nonetheless pleased with this tasty new addition to my diet.
Hopefully it even helps me live a little longer.