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Jack of All Fruits??

Jack of All Fruits??

Shalini Kala
Jackfruit

In Shalini Kala’s tale we experience an aromatic culinary journey filled with places, people, and diverseness of jackfruit. An endearing story, told very charmingly.

Year 2001. I am travelling around in remote parts of Koraput in southern Odisha meeting with tribal communities to understand their challenge with overcoming hunger. The team from the partner NGO is patient and gentle. I am horrified and visibly disturbed hearing the stories of seasonal migrants to cities to earn survival cash returning with diseases that are common in the city but a killer for these unexposed people and their families. Huge collateral damage but because education, transport, clothes, and other such trappings of progress can only be bought with cash there is little choice.

I see a bounty of fruits growing wildly and wonder if these could not be turned into an economic opportunity to avoid migration to cities. Jackfruit, custard apple, coconuts and cashew. One grown man appears carrying two pieces of jackfruit, one at each end of the pole he is carrying on his shoulder. He is struggling to walk in a straight line under their weight – no, he is not drunk. In my mainly north India existence and western world travel I have never seen such large-sized jackfruits till now. Sensing the wave of optimism that is engulfing me, K from the local NGO team tells me he will explain later what are the barriers to earn from these abundant gifts of nature. Again in his quiet and easy way, without revealing any extreme emotions. I wonder how he does that, is he unfeeling or is he just too used to this kind of deprivation that our fellow citizens suffer even after five decades of independence? I am also ashamed, in a little way at least.

We are done with our visit, I am suffering from emotional fatigue, I say my good byes and quickly jump into the first vehicle that arrives to take us back. I want to leave to be able to process this with objectivity and get something practical and useful done for this community. I close my eyes signaling I don’t want to talk to anyone in the vehicle. The patient, gentle people indulge me again making me kick myself once more. I make a silent promise to myself to try to be like them; I am known to be an easily excitable person, driven to emotional extremes at the slightest of excuses. Soon, I am distracted by a smell, something outside probably. A few minutes later it gets stronger, a robust sweetish aroma.  Another few minutes, I am forced to open my eyes and look around and outside. I see nothing. It is an unbearable stink now and I had just made a promise to myself.

In the effort to become a better person, I smilingly ask if the vehicle uses a special perfume, something local. I hear laughter. I feel silly and relieved at the same time. I am told, the “fragrance” is from the two ripe jackfruits shared by the community we just visited. They have been carefully lodged with us in this vehicle. I never knew ripe jackfruit if kept in enclosed space smelled like this, I didn’t know it had a smell, I didn’t even know it could be eaten as a fruit. I nod, smile and say nothing; I am still trying to be a better person. I know we are soon going to stop for a pee break. Will I be able to do something about this situation? I can’t throw out those big babies quietly, that will break my limbs and possibly my spine. I can’t ask them to be thrown, I am continuing to try to be a better person. The clock is ticking, my mind is racing fast unable to reach anywhere.

We stop, disperse to stretch our legs and do other such sundries. In a few minutes, a second vehicle parks right behind ours. Out pour the rest of our entourage. In a jiffy I am inside this vehicle, first, checking for the big fruits and once convinced there is none, gluing myself to the front seat. To be doubly sure, I politely ask the driver if I could get some jackfruit, he is bewildered but starts to move to the other vehicle. I call him back, ask him if there is none in this car. He gives me the answer I am hoping and praying for. I close my eyes once more, this time in utter relief. Others invite me to enjoy the fresh air and try to show me some rare plants growing in the area. I hold on to my seat nodding my head in fake admiration. No one can move me now from this seat. I announce loudly that I shall cover rest of the trip in this vehicle, speaking with this group. Wide smiles all around clearly indicate that my hidden motives don’t fool anyone. I can’t care much.

Year 2003. This is my first trip to Thailand. I am checking in at the hotel and see “Dogs and Durian not allowed”. I don’t really know what durian is except that it is a fruit but decide to find out later why it won’t be allowed in hotels. At the workshop that I am attending the Filipino team casually remarks that their country has the best and largest variety of durian.  Innocently, and revealing my ignorance, I ask if they allowed them in hotels there. This time the laughter makes me feel just silly. A kind soul confirms with me that I have not tasted the fruit and offers to take me on an educational tour in the evening. We saunter to a fruit cart, P asks the vendor to cut and serve a durian for us. From the outside, this looks like an irritated cousin – sharp spikes all around – of the jackfruit from a not-too-distant line of relatives. I see it being expertly cut in length around the fruit but not fully and then pulled apart tenderly in slices that reveal a cavity with ripe dull-creamish long thick orb shaped fruits. I have never seen anything like this. This is a far removed cousin of the jackfruit in what it looks like on the inside.

Except the smell! This smells even more pungently than the jackfruit. I hear something inside me revolting, I almost sprint away. I feel a firm but strangely gentle tug on my arm, encouraging me to get past the stench. I try hard, close my eyes, and hesitatingly put a piece in my mouth biting it as lightly as I can as if that will somehow reduce the intense aroma. I experience a sweet custardy substance, a long distance away in taste from the putrid smell that preceded it. I may not be jumping with joy but the newness of the adventure is strangely satisfying. On my subsequent trips to Thailand, I get to try different varieties and I hear several times about this “King of all fruits” at which I silently, secretly roll my eyes.

Year 2006. The best experience of Durian was in Northern Mindanao, the Philippines where on a long table sat about 15 different varieties. Each competing to emanate a stronger whiff than the other, but each more delicious than most I had had till then. Of course, I had become strategically better at ignoring the smells by now.

Year 2022. Savory raw jackfruit preparations remain my top favorites. I never crave for the ripe sweet fruit.  Whether it is a curry with or without sweet peas or a flavorful biryani, the texture of raw jackfruit is unique for the herbivore world. Though my mum cooked it only occasionally, as it was not easily available in north Indian cities in the last century, its distinct and delicious texture has been hard to ignore. Raw jackfruit preparations enjoy an exalted position with S and his vegetarian family, an emphatic symbol of long-lived prosperity.  Since, sweet peas also occupy a similar position; you can imagine what rank would a curry featuring both be at!

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Ingredients

  1. Half-kg slice of raw jackfruit
  2. 200 gms sweet peas – fresh for best results
  3. 2 table spoons mustard oil or ghee for best results, any other fat will also do
  4. 1 bayleaf
  5. Half a teaspoon cumin seeds
  6. A generous pinch of asafoetida
  7. 1 large onion chopped
  8. 2 large tomatoes finely chopped
  9. 4 thick garlic cloves finely chopped
  10. A half-inch piece of ginger grated
  11. Green chillies chopped or slit, as per taste
  12. Half a tea spoon turmeric
  13. 2 tea spoons coriander powder
  14. 1 tea spoon of your preferred garam masala powder
  15. Salt to taste
  16. A cup or thereabouts of water
  17. 1 table spoon chopped fresh coriander

Cooking method

Raw jackfruit needs to be cut carefully due to the sticky sap it releases once pierced. In many bazaars and shops you can find it cut into small pieces or in thick slices. If it is the former, all you need to do is to chop the pieces further in bite sizes; pull out the seeds and discard their thick, sort-of-plasticky peel; it doesn’t soften enough during cooking to become edible. If you are working with a slice or a whole fruit, lightly oil the knife and your hands before peeling the skin. Then follow the same procedure just described to reach bite-size pieces.

In a pressure cooker, heat oil/ghee and lightly fry jackfruit pieces just short of turning pink.  Remove and keep aside. In the remaining fat – top it up if you feel it is less than a table spoon – add the bay leaf, followed by cumin seeds, asafoetida, and chopped or full green chilies. Once fragrant, add garlic, sauté till it turns pink. Add onions, fry till they soften. Add tomatoes, ginger, turmeric, coriander and salt. Fry till the mix becomes mushy. Add peas to the mix and fry for about 30 seconds to a minute. Mix jackfruit pieces and stir for another minute. Add water so that it fully covers the mix and a little bit more. The curry should neither be very thick nor very thin to get the full deliciousness of the dish. Pressure cook for about 12 minutes on very low heat after the first whistle. Let the steam release on its own after you have taken the cooker off the heat. Serve garnished with sprinkled garam masala and fresh coriander. This curry goes very well with roti, parantha, the Goan poi, or any other type of bread. I am yet to experiment having it with dosas!

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