I'VE heard jackfruit called "the next kale" - a food trend ready to break wide. Which is, frankly, hard to believe.
I mean, we're talking about a huge, ungainly fruit that's sometimes 3 feet long, can weigh 80 pounds and is covered with tiny, unwelcoming spikes. When ripe, it smells like rotting onions. Cut one open and it oozes white latex that will leave you a sticky, gooey mess unless you oil your hand and your knife first. Plus, while plentiful in tropical zones, it hasn't been easy to find elsewhere.
So what's in the plus column? I'm told it has a pleasantly fruity flavor when ripe, and, hundreds of years ago, someone found that this fruit, in its unripe state, can be used in place of meat.
A versatile, chewy tabula rasa for spices, it can be used in curries but also in sloppy joes. Known as "vegetable meat" in multiple languages, it's now showing up in blogs, cookbooks and even local menus serving just that purpose. And it has a "natural" advantage over processed meat substitutes: It's low in fat, calories and sodium, and high in vitamin C. (It is, of course, lower in protein - about 3 grams per cup.)
In the spirit of experiment, I had to try this oddity.
The first thing I learned was that there are two distinct jackfruits: One is the ripe fruit, used in sweet dishes. Canned in syrup, this is pretty widely available - I found it at all the Chinatown markets I checked - but it's not what we're looking for here.
That would be the "young green," not-quite-ripe fruit, canned in water, for which I trekked to South Philly. The two big Asian supermarkets, Hung Vuong, at Washington Avenue near 12th Street, and First Oriental Market, at 6th Street near Washington Avenue, have many different kinds of canned, unripe jackfruit, as well as whole jackfruits. I literally staggered when I saw this thing, twice as big as a prizewinning watermelon.
The raw item has a texture like artichokes but pulls into shreds instead of sheets. The flavor is mild to nonexistent, which is why most recipes start by either rubbing spices into the pieces or marinating them. Like tofu, it makes a good base for other flavors, but it also has a pleasant chewability.
I went with the most forgiving format I had heard of for jackfruit: tacos. I marinated the pieces in a barbecue-like mixture for a scant 20 minutes or so, then sautéed them with onions, breaking them into shreds with the spatula and adding a bit more barbecue sauce. I then baked the mixture for 15 minutes.
The result? Well, by the time we added fixins, these were some very good, tasty, credible tacos. Not bad for an experiment - and for a fruit subbing for meat!
But it's doubtless best tried when prepared by a pro. At Memphis Taproom (2331 Cumberland Street near Memphis, 215-425-4460), they've had Old Bay Jackfruit Cakes - the fruit subbing for crab - on the menu for about five years, according to chef Jessie Kimball.
Similarly, Mark McKinney, who oversees the menus at the Cantinas Dos Segundos (2nd and Poplar streets, 215-629-0500) and Los Caballitos (Passyunk Avenue near Tasker Street, 215-755-3550), features jackfruit tacos occasionally.
I asked for prepping advice.
"We rub it with a mix of ancho and chipotle powder, cumin, paprika, black pepper and kosher salt," he explained. Then, after blackening/searing on the plancha, the fruit is braised in a basic salsa verde till it becomes tender and starts to shred like meat.
"To order, we pan-sear it in an oil infused with Mexican oregano and garlic, put it on corn tortillas and garnish with onion, cilantro and lime. Simple!"
That's the good news. The better news is that McKinney has put jackfruit tacos back on the Dos Segundos and Los Caballitos menus to give "V for Veg" readers a chance to get their jackfruit feet wet.