Artocarpus heterophyllus is quite common in tropical areas and can be seen (usually smelt before you see it...) on most street markets in Asia, Africa, Latin America and of course Reunion Island! So why is it such a common sight there and not in Brooklyn's delicatessen or Denver's organic food-stores? The two main reasons are the size and weight of the thing, coupled with its unique perfume.
But first let me introduce the plant itself. It belongs to the Moraceae family from which many of you are familiar with the fig tree (Ficus carica) or the many species used as indoor plants (Ficus benjamina and its various variegated cultivars). This botanical family is divided between some 40 different genus comprising about 1400 species mostly from the tropics. The genus Artocarpus itself numbers around 50 species from India, Ceylon, Southern China and all the way down to the Solomon archipelago. The bread fruit (Artocarpus altilis), well known and enjoyed throughout all the Pacific Ocean is another common species in the tropics and is the one which gave its name to the genus (‘artos' is Greek for ‘bread' while ‘carpos' stands for ‘fruit'). Keen travelers with an open mind for exotic fruits may also have tasted the cempedak (Artocarpus integer) and the madang (Artocarpus odoratissimus) while roaming through South-Eastern Asia. The jackfruit tree originates in India where it is greatly appreciated hence grown, with a calculated total area of 26000 hectares! It grows into a stocky tree with dark bark, reaching 15 to 20 meters (45 to 60 feet) high, the leaves are dark green and entire (they can be lobed but only during the juvenile stage) rough to the touch. The whole plant, like all species of the Moraceae family, contains a white sticky latex which can be pretty tricky to remove from the hands and tools...the best parade is to copiously sprinkle oil on all surfaces meant to get in contact with this latex. The flowers are unisexual and lack any attractive color or feature, they are born on the trunk and main branches, a common feature amongst tropical trees which is called ‘cauliflory'.
Now, back to our jackfruit itself, this is indeed the biggest of all fruits, all categories, all times, all climates, it simply crushes flat any opponent and the largest water-melons cannot compete as those do not grow on trees! A mature fruit can reach 50 to 90 cm (over three feet) long and weight up to 50 kg, enough to feed a whole bunch of hungry Dave's Garden's readers. Those fruits are usually born on main branches or directly on the trunk, the logical result of cauliflory. The Latin name for this kind of fruit is ‘syncarp' which according to botany dictionary is ‘a fleshy multiple fruit, formed from two or more carpels of one flower (as in the raspberry or magnolia) or the aggregated fruits of several flowers (as in the pineapple or mulberry).' The skin is green to brownish-yellow, covered with conical to polygonal spikes, rather hard and can be used as fodder for animals, inside is a thick white inner skin surrounding more or less fibrous fleshy masses which form the edible part. Those are yellow, the sweetness depending on the variety. The smell will depend on the variety and the degree of ripeness, an over-ripe jackfruit can be nose-spotted form a large distance even in thick tropical forests where many other perfumes compete! As the saying goes ‘all tastes are in the nature' so just like for French cheese jackfruits are either detested or adored. For those with a rather curious instinct we will go beyond the first olfactory impression and have a taste. It is sometimes stated that ripe jackfruit tastes somewhat like a mix of pineapple and banana but I personally cannot find any relevant description, it certainly is not as subtle as longans or cherries but is definitely worth a try. Those fruits have a high energetic value, with a content of up to 20% of sugar and 6% of proteins. Calcium, phosphorus and potassium are also present, with an impressive 407mg of the later for 100g of flesh. The large seeds are toxic when raw but very edible if boiled or grilled, reminding chestnuts in both the taste and texture. This short description has probably explained why you would not find such a marvel at your corner's store, much more handy to buy a couple apples!
Now, this was the sweet face of the jackfruit but it also has a salty one. How come? Well, just like green bananas which can be fried and salted, the unripe jackfruit can be used in a variety of recipes and turned into a main dish. As a matter of fact there are two main varieties of this fruit; the hard one and the soft one. The hard one, called on Reunion ‘jaque dur' is the one which will be mostly used for cooking; it is to be peeled and chopped very finely somewhat like for preserves. It will then be cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, hot pepper and most of the time some ‘boucané' or smoked meat, the resulting meal will be called ‘ti-jaque boucané' or ‘carry ti-jaque'. As it does not have much taste by itself the quality of the dish will come mostly from the extra ingredients and from the cook's skill. The soft one or ‘jaque sosso' can also be cooked while still unripe but will not have the same firmness and will therefore be preferably left to ripe and enjoyed for dessert. An exceptionally sweet variety is locally known as ‘jaque miel' which means ‘honey jack', guess why.
Besides its amazing prodigality as fruit producer the tree has also various uses; as said previously the rind of the fruit can be given to animals which will of course enjoy the whole fruit and the leaves. The latex can be used as an effective glue for a variety of purposes from fixing broken pieces of furniture to mending aging boats. The wood is a good quality timber, it turns to a nice yellow color, is quite hard and resists termites, and it has been used in Bali to build palaces. Sawdust and wood chips are also used a dye by Buddhist monks to color their robes.
Propagation is essentially carried through seeds which have a rather short life; they are to be sown within weeks after harvest as they would be useless only one month later. Air-layering is the other common way, cuttings and grafting being not very efficient. Young plants will be planted once they bear four leaves, the tree will start bearing fruits between 5 and 15 years after sowing depending on the variety and the agronomic specificities of the growing place. It enjoys hot and humid areas and although it can adapt to a variety of conditions it will not tolerate drought nor would it survive in a permanently soaked soil and is cold-sensitive. It will therefore do better in lowlands even if it can be seen at altitudes of 800m above sea level, in deep rich soils.
I hope this article will convince you to have a try at this fruit next time you go to India or whenever you visit Reunion Island!