“Everyone who enjoys thinks that the principal thing to the tree is the fruit, but in point of fact the principal thing to it is the seed. — Herein lies the difference between them that create and them that enjoy.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
The first time we went to the Municipal Market in São Paulo, I witnessed two men struggling to hurl a giant greenish-yellow ball (easily over 2ft in diameter) up onto their fruit display. They propped it up with a wooden plank, and proceeded to grab a scimitar and whack it to pieces in front of all the onlookers. It was a good show – and it definitely made me curious to learn more about this fruit. I never got the opportunity to try it while we were in São Paulo – it’s only sold in specialty markets and isn’t common in southern Brazil. Fortunately, jaca – known in English as jackfruit – thrives in the northern tropical environment of Ceará, and Alex’s dad actually has a jaqueira tree on his yard.
The fruit in the photo was nowhere near maturity – and it was already the size of my head. The jaca (pronounced JAH-ka) is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, and although it definitely looks like it’s from the Amazon, it actually originated in India. Each fruit can reach up to 80 pounds in weight and up to 36 inches long and 20 inches in diameter. The exterior of the compound fruit is green or yellow when ripe. The interior consists of large edible bulbs of yellow flesh that encloses a smooth, oval, light-brown seed. The seed is about 1″ long and 3/4″ thick and is white and crisp within. There may be 100 (or up to 500!) seeds in a single fruit. When fully ripe, the unopened jaca emits a strong odor, resembling that of decayed onions, while the pulp of the opened fruit smells of pineapple and banana. The fruit is covered with hard points. Jaca is ready for harvest when the single small leaf above the stem withers. Like most fruits, ripening continues after it’s picked. Alex’s dad’s neighbors showed us how to test the ripeness of the fruit by tapping on the exterior – when it’s ripe, the fruit softens and will give a little when tapped.
We picked a nearly ripe jaca from the tree and let it ripen indoors for a few days. It has a very bizarre, sweet, unusual flavor that I couldn’t immediately compare to anything else – then I realized that (to me) jaca tasted exactly like bubblegum.
Varieties of jaca are distinguished according to the characteristics of the fruits’ flesh. In Brazil, three varieties are recognized. These are: jaca-dura, or “hard” variety, which has firm flesh and the largest fruits that can weigh between 30 and 80 lbs. each; jaca-mole, or “soft” variety, which bears smaller fruits, with softer and sweeter flesh; and jaca-manteiga, or “butter” variety, which bears sweet fruits, whose flesh has a consistency intermediate between the “hard” and “soft” varieties.
The fruit is covered with a sticky latex – a lot of people suggest coating your hands and knife in oil to make the cleanup easier. The inside of the jaca is pretty bizarre looking. The seeds are surrounded by ear-shaped bits called arils, which is the main edible part of the fruit. Between the arils is a fibrous part called rags – aptly named, since it looks like the edge of a frayed rag. The rags can be saved and frozen – numerous sources say it’s an excellent jam-setting agent because of its high pectin content. The seeds themselves are actually edible and very nutritious. It’s a shame we didn’t research this before we ate it – we just threw them out. To use the seeds, boil for several minutes and then roast them in a pan with a little oil, microwave them in a bag (they tend to pop) or roast them in the hot coals of a dying fire. Several sources say that they have a flavor similar to chestnuts.
In India and most of Southeast Asia, jaca is traditionally used in many curry recipes. The rags are chopped and sauteed with vegetables, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and coconut milk, and served over rice.
The jaca is considered an invasive species in Brazil, especially in the Tijuca Forest National Park in Rio de Janeiro. The Tijuca forest is mostly an artificial secondary forest, whose planting began during the mid-19thcentury, and jaca trees have been a part of the park’s landscape since its founding. Recently, the species expanded excessively, due to the fact that its fruits, once they had naturally fallen to the ground and opened, were eagerly eaten by small mammals such as the common marmoset and the coati. The seeds are dispersed by these animals, which allows the jaca to compete for space with native tree-species. Additionally, as the marmoset and coati also prey on bird’s eggs and nestlings, the supply of jaca as an easily available source of food has allowed them to expand their populations, which has negatively impacted the local bird population. Between 2002 and 2007, 55,662 jaca saplings were destroyed in the Tijuca Forest area by the park’s management.
Jaca isn’t common outside of the tropics. About 12 trees exist in Florida, but they’re mainly used as a novelty decoration. I read that once in a while, you can find fresh jaca in some Asian markets in the US during peak ripening season (summer) when the supply in Asia is overabundant. You can probably find it preserved in syrup or dried in most Asian or Brazilian markets year round.
While looking for information, I came across this website, which has a “How to cut and serve jackfruit” video at the bottom. It’s really cool – describing the jaca is hard, and the video makes it a little easier to visualize. The jaca in the video isn’t exactly like the one we ate, but it’s close enough.
Jackfruit & Apple Pie
- 1 baked pastry pie crust
- 2 c. jackfruit
- 1/2 c. dates
- 1 c. seeded white grapes
- 12 oz. can unsweetened pie apples (or 3-4 raw, peeled, thinly sliced apples)
- 3 T. butter
- enough apple juice to cover fruit
- one stick of cinnamon
- 3 T. arrowroot powder (can substitute with cornstarch if needed)
Dice the jaca into small cubes and chop the dates and grapes.
Melt butter in the pan. Place all fruit in saucepan and stir to coat. Add enough apple juice to cover the fruit by at least 2″. Add the cinnamon stick.
Bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer until fruit is cooked and soft. Remove the cinnamon stick. Taste and adjust the flavor with sugar or other spices if necessary (cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg, allspice…)
Mix arrowroot with cool water and add to mixture (If you’re using cornstarch, you’ll probably need more than 3 T to thicken the liquid and you’ll need to bring the liquid to a boil after you add the cornstarch). Stir until thickened. The liquid should be thick enough that it clings to a spoon like a warm pudding.
Pour into pie shell, cool, and then refrigerate.
Serve with ice cream or custard.