Jackfruit: The real-life cultural influencer

Jackfruit: The real-life cultural influencer

Today, Starbucks serves jackfruit served in wraps, while Pizza Hut offers it as a topping in some countries. The London evening standard called jackfruit “the new kimchi, kale and cauliflower all rolled into one.” Pinterest named it “the hottest food trend of 2017”, and recently the Guardian declared it “a vegan sensation” courtesy of its shredded meat texture. Despite its recent vitality, jackfruit has laced cultures long before. From mythology to relatively modern stories (starring 1800s), jackfruit has played a dominant role in most tropical settlements around the world. Let’s explore some of them.

Puerto Rico and Costa Rica: Even though there exist vast economic differences between these two countries, they both thrive on common food denominators. Both are Latin American countries, rich in their culinary histories. Jackfruit was naturalized in these areas by Portuguese traders, who brought them to the Americas in the 17th century. Popular folklore goes that jackfruit was brought to Jamaica in 1782 when these plants were captured from a French ship destined for Martinique. Locals were delighted to see them thrive in the lush rainforests alongside coffee and sugar cane. Soon, jackfruit trees were producing enormous fruits, much to the traders’ delight.

Modern-day carnitas and tacos are incomplete without “yaca” or “panapen” as it’s locally called. When said traders imported the plants, they put their own linguistic spin on “chakka pazham“, and called the fruit “jaca“. As you can probably deduce, this name became anglicized over time and morphed into the “jackfruit” moniker we’re all familiar with now.

Sri Lanka: While the west is now hyping it as an ethical meat alternative, for centuries, this humble fruit has been revered by Sri Lankans. Probably that’s why it was also known as the ‘starvation fruit’ for some decades.

Across Sri Lanka, the jackfruit tree is known as bath gasa (“rice tree”). It’s well known that Sri Lankans are rice eaters. However, when the British colonized the island in 1915, they made it difficult for the local farmers to grow rice, pushing for cash crops like tea, rubber, and cinnamon for export gains. Precisely a century later, in 1915, a member of Sri Lanka’s independence movement named Arthur V Dias was released from prison. He was serving time for his perceived role in an uprising. Upon his release, he dedicated himself to helping his countrymen fight the Britishers. However, it didn’t take time to observe an imminent food crisis with depleting rice cultivation and the very adamant destruction of the island’s native jackfruit trees.

“One person can’t build a tank for paddy cultivation, but Arthur V Dias realized he could plant jackfruit trees, which [would] be the same as rice and eradicate starvation in Sri Lanka,” said Damith Amarasinghe, a history teacher at St Mary’s Maha Viduhala in the town of Uswetakeiyawa. With an ambitious plan of planting one million jackfruit trees across Sri Lanka, Dias campaign paved the way to many successful jackfruit plantations across the country and earned him the heroic nickname of Kos Mama, or Uncle Jack.

Malaysia: Jackfruit, in Malaysia, is more popular with its Malay name as Nangka. A quick overview on google might credit Malaysia as the origin country for jackfruit, but the story is a bit more complicated. Technically, it was the southern belt of India that found the first traces of jackfruit. Fun fact: even before 1,000 BCE there was an established Jewish colony in Kerala (a major jackfruit growing region) that traded regularly with the Middle East. This means that western cultures have been in contact with jackfruit for over 5,000 years! By that extension, Malaysian regions could make it to the founding team for this marvel.

The fondness for this fruit grows with familiarity. A good testament to this statement is the varied ways in which Malaysians consume it.

Apart from eating it straight, they sometimes make sweet snacks with it – its flavor and texture lend themselves to many uses, from simmering it in a sauce to dipping it in batter and frying it, to stuffing it with sticky rice, to baking it in a cake. Nothing from pancakes to kaya is spared when it comes to experimenting with jackfruit.

Jackfruit is not a modern-day wonder as most lobbies will have you believe. It’s a superfood that cultures, history have embraced for centuries but is receiving its due diligence only now. Another popular story credits jackfruit for getting toilets to Indian railways, but that’s a story for another time.

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