What is Jackfruit and Why is it in Your Tacos?

what is jackfruit

The growing trend toward vegan meat substitutes is no joke—Google just identified it as the top trend in tech. And a once little-known (but rather giant) fruit called jackfruit is earning its place in the category. But what is jackfruit?

“It’s been used as a meat alternative for centuries in Asia,” says Dan Staackmann, founder of the Chicago-based Upton’s Naturals, the leading U.S. importer/manufacturer of seasoned jackfruit.

An ethical vegan of more than 20 years, Staackmann stumbled on the delicacy at a Nepalese restaurant and was pleasantly surprised. “I loved it so much that I began to research it and found many people using it for tacos and barbecue,” says Staackmann. “At the time, young, unripe jackfruit was only available from specialty Asian grocery stores in 20-oz cans, usually with preservatives.”

So, Staackmann and the team at Upton’s Naturals took to importing it—without the preservatives—and seasoning the product with its own signature recipes. Along with the other leading brand in the category, the aptly-named Jackfruit Company, Upton’s Naturals is carving out a niche for this fruit in the meat alternative category.

Jackfruit’s timing in the U.S. couldn’t be better—it may just be the low-tech answer to the growing quest for meatless meats. Twenty-five percent of U.S. consumers decreased their meat intake between 2014 and 2015, and meat alternative sales nearly doubled from $69 million in 2011 to $109 million in 2015, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

While innovative brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat tool around in labs to make the perfect meatless burgers (Beyond Meat is even selling its burger at the meat counters in Whole Foods), Upton’s Naturals is taking a more back-to-the-roots approach to meat substitutes — shredding and saucing up these funky juicy jackfruits, which are now popping up on menus and supermarket shelves all across the country.

Here in Los Angeles, one of the city’s most beloved vegan restaurants, Sage Organic Bistro, is known for its jackfruit nachos and tacos. The soft, meaty jackfruit flesh absorbs the seasoning and flavors. Just down the road from Sage’s Echo Park location is Samosa House, a vegetarian Indian restaurant in Silver Lake that sells a delicious spicy jackfruit curry—a traditional Indian dish. A popular LA-based taco truck, Plant Food for People, often has a line of customers waiting around the block for its delectable shredded jackfruit tacos. And it’s hitting the menus in other vegan spots across the country—Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, serves jackfruit topped pizza, for example.

What is Jackfruit?

Jackfruit pods being removed via Shutterstock

A large tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia, jackfruits are massive fruits—the largest tree-born fruits in the world—that can weigh up to 100 pounds, according to Staackmann.

Consumed in Asian and Indian cuisine for millennia—both the ripe and unripe jackfruits—it’s the unripe jackfruit that you’ll find seasoned and marketed as a meat substitute.

“[W]e’ve heard that under Communist rule in Sri Lanka every family had to have two Jackfruit trees on their property,” says Staackmann “in case of a food crisis, the fruit can be eaten at any stage of maturity.”

The giant fruits are related to breadfruit and mulberries, and have yellowish green skin. Since they can grow so large, the shape of the fruit can vary widely, but they’re generally oblong, lumpy-looking fruits that slightly resemble the durian, another popular South-Asian fruit delicacy. And like durian, jackfruits have little seed pods inside the skin that are eaten.

Jackfruit Nutrition Facts and Natural Benefits

Because jackfruit can be consumed at different times of maturity, the nutrition profile of the fruit may change with the stages of ripeness. But generally speaking, a 100-gram serving size contains 95 calories and about 25 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin B6. In its raw state it contains a notable amount of vitamin C (10-19 percent), and it’s also a good source of potassium, B1, B2, folate, vitamin E, magnesium, manganese, iron, calcium, and dietary fiber.

As a meat substitute, jackfruit isn’t a huge source of protein—only about two grams per serving. Compared with other vegan meats, it’s considerably low. But it can be easily paired with other vegan proteins such as beans, seitan, or tofu to amp up the protein profile of a meal. (Or top it off with avocado, which is comparable in protein per serving, and you’ve got the protein equivalent of a large egg. Not bad for two fruits.)

Taste of Jackfruit

If you’ve ever chewed on a stick of Juicy Fruit gum you’re familiar with the essence of ripe jackfruit–the banana-y tropical flavor. Some say it tastes a bit like pineapple or mango. Either way, the mighty jackfruit was reportedly the inspiration behind the popular gum flavor. That’s the fully ripe fruit that’s sweet and, well, fruity.

But if you’ve eaten a jackfruit taco or sandwich, you’re not tasting any Juicy Fruit gum essences in there.

“Unseasoned young jackfruit has a neutral, slightly sour flavor and absorbs other flavors well (ie, barbecue),” says Staackmann. “The texture is similar to that of pulled pork or shredded poultry when cooked down.” And that’s why you’re finding jackfruit in so many tacos.

How to Buy Jackfruit

Jackfruit image via Shutterstock

jackfruit nutrition

If you’re looking to buy a fresh jackfruit you’ll first need to look for a good price on airfare to South Asia. I spotted a few in Hawaii (on Kauai) a few years ago, but these aren’t popping up at your local farmers market. Some Asian markets do import jackfruits, but they’re usually frozen. Not quite the same experience of tasting fresh jackfruit in the tropics.

And while the experience of eating fresh, tropical jackfruit is absolutely worthwhile; you can enjoy this meaty fruit year-round in its cooked form. Look for pre-packaged and pre-seasoned jackfruit in the meat alternative section of your local supermarket. Or find it at Asian markets, probably in cans.

How to Eat It (Jackfruit Recipes)

“Jackfruit is very messy,” says Staackmann. “It produces a natural latex that sticks to everything,” he says. “The unripe fruit must be cooked in order to eat it, but the ripe fruit is amazing raw.” But he warns that eating the raw fruit is time consuming because you’ve got to dig out the seeds and pods.

“Jackfruits can be dried, roasted, added to soups, used in chips, jams, juices, ice cream,” reports NPR. “The seeds can be boiled, roasted or ground into flour. Even the tree itself is valuable: high-quality, rot-resistant timber for furniture and musical instruments.”

To consume cooked jackfruit is much easier than the fresh mature fruit. You can buy the pre-seasoned and precooked product and just reheat. Upton’s Naturals sells several styles of jackfruit including a barbecue style jackfruit that can be used in place of pulled pork, Thai curry, chili lime carnitas, and an unseasoned jackfruit you’ll need to season yourself. But there are plenty of recipes for that.

Looking for a little jackfruit inspiration?

BBQ Jackfruit Pulled Pork Recipe

1. Jackfruit Pulled Pork Sandwich

Get a load of this beauty! Stacked smoky, sweet pulled pork jackfruit, crisp lettuce, and pungent onion. Perfection!

jackfruit rolls

2. Thai Curry Fresh Rolls

Using Upton’s Naturals Thai Curry jackfruit, whip up this appetizer or lunch recipe in less than 30 minutes.

jackfruit enchiladas

3. Jackfruit Enchiladas

Who doesn’t love enchiladas? These look incredible.

jackfruit tuna melt

4. Jackfruit Tuna Melt

You know what’s not in vogue anymore? Eating endangered, canned fish. Satisfy your tuna sammy craving with jackfruit.

5. Jackfruit Rueben

jackfruit rueben

Oh, the reuben! The holy grail of vegan sandwiches. Jackfruit flakes like soft corned beef only without the impending heart attack.

jackfruit crab rangoon

6. Jackfruit Crab Rangoon

Hey, look, it’s a 1970s dinner party! But, you know, updated, eco-friendly, sustainable, healthy, and loaded with jackfruit.

jackfruit crab cakes

7. Jackfruit Crab Cakes

Don’t be fooled–these are not hockey pucks. They’re flaky, crumbly, and totally delish jackfruit crab cakes.

jackfruit pudding

8. Jackfruit Pudding

This recipe calls for ripe jackfruit for a sweet and satisfying nondairy pudding (sub coconut oil for the ghee).

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Related on Organic Authority

The Mighty, Stinky Durian Fruit: Do You Dare?
The Herbivorous Butcher: Saving the World with Vegan Meat?
5 Juicy Benefits of Grapefruit (the Bitter Truth!)

top jackfruit image via Shutterstock