The jack of all fruits
As Kerala declares jackfruit the official state fruit, Lounge takes a look at its other regional interpretations
Declaring the jackfruit as its official fruit is Kerala’s way of pre-empting its global rise as a new superfood. As foreign exports of the fruit have picked up, the state government has been promoting this fruit in every possible way, from organizing jackfruit festivals to setting up farmers’ cooperatives. Kerala’s Jackfruit Promotion Council is also working to increase the fruit’s general popularity, create awareness about its medical benefits, and exploit its economic potential. However, the fruit isn’t limited to Kerala. In 2012, the Union government’s department of biotechnology, along with the University of Agricultural Sciences Bangalore, conducted a study which led to the identification 105 genotypes of jackfruit nationwide. This indigenous backyard plant and common shade tree in coffee plantations has an equal presence in the north, east and western parts of the country, as is evident in the regional names for this giant among fruits. The newly anointed chakka of Kerala is Tamil Nadu’s palappalam, Bengal’s enchor, north India’s kathal, Assam’s kothol, and Maharashtra and Gujarat’s phanasa.
Indigenous to the Western Ghats, the jackfruit has, over centuries, sown its seeds across the country. Among the earliest written references to the fruit are from circa 1300, in the works of poet and scholar Amir Khusrau. In the 15th century Baburnama, the Mughal emperor is believed to have written a less than flattering note on the ripe jackfruit, comparing it to “the intestines of sheep...with a cloyingly sweet taste". The jackfruit’s pungent aroma and gummy texture evoke strong emotions of love or hate, yet, whatever the case, it is hard to deny its versatility. Each fruit can weigh up to 35kg, and its spiky exterior encases hundreds of fleshy bulbs and plump seeds which have varied culinary uses. In its own life cycle from a firm unripe fruit to full maturity, it evolves in texture, aroma, flavour, even colour. Anoothi Vishal, in her book Mrs LC’s Table: Stories About Kayasth Food And Culture, writes, “Raw jackfruit, regarded as ‘meat for vegetarians’ because of the way it looks and because of its texture, was another ingredient commonly used in faux non-vegetarian recipes." And this was an identity peculiar to the green jackfruit across the country.
In Bengal, the colloquial name for the jackfruit was gaach patha, which literally translates into tree goat. Treated as the centrepiece of vegetarian feasts, the fruit is often cooked with the same spice blends and techniques as a rich meat-based curry or pulao. There is a jackfruit dish for every course and hour of the day, starting with savoury chips and ending with a sweet payasam. Here are a few traditional jackfruit specialities from around the country:
Kathal ki Tahiri (Uttar Pradesh)
This is a Kayasth classic from Vishal’s book that picks the “right sort of tender raw jackfruit" and fries it with whole spices, onions, yogurt and ghee. Rice is added to this mix and cooked till both are done. This dish is supposed to evoke the richness and depth of a goat-meat pulao with the kathal tender yet whole and each grain of rice cooked to perfection.
Enchorer Dalna (West Bengal)
The rich enchorer dalna or green jackfruit curry is a dish suited to special occasions and is often the vegetarian counterpart to the chicken, meat or fish main course. Utsa Ray, in her book Culinary Culture In Colonial India, writes about a 1925 wedding menu of Pratima Debi and Kanailal Gangopadhyay which features the enchorer dalna high up in the vegetarian section. The trick to a good enchorer dalna, much like the famous Bengali kosha mangsho, lies in the browning of the onions. Back in the day when widows were forbidden non-vegetarian food, the enchorer dalna was the closest substitute to a rich meat curry.
Chekke Kuru Pajji (Karnataka)
The Coorgi chekke kuru pajji, or jackfruit seed chutney, is a simple mix of boiled or roasted jackfruit seeds which are pounded together with green chillies, onion, fresh coconut, and a squeeze of lime. This coarse chutney is a great side dish that can be had with steamed rice. It is also a breakfast staple to be had with akki rotis, idlis and uttapam.
Kothal gutir pitika (Assam)
Pitika is one of the important aspects of an Assamese thali. Charmaine O’Brien, in The Penguin Food Guide To India, describes how the traditional version commonly features vegetables like eggplant, tomato and potato, or even fish, roasted on a fire and then mashed with salt, green chillies and coriander. This jackfruit seed recipe from Assam is an unusual take on the pitika, which combines boiled jackfruit seeds with chopped onion, ginger, chillies, mustard oil and salt. The seeds have a creamy texture and neutral flavour, which work really well with the addition of aromatics.
Phanasachi Bhaji (Maharashtra)
A popular dish from the Konkan region, this Malvani classic combines jackfruit bhaji with freshly ground masalas and the heat of dried red chillies. The fried dish is eaten as a side dish with rice or even as a stand-alone snack. Jackfruit bhajis from the Malvan region are either cooked when the fruit is in the very tender stage or when they are fully grown but not yet fully ripe.