Saturday, June 27, 2009

My Jackfruit Tree

Boys and Girls, today’s subject is my jackfruit tree. Maybe I’ll just do a quick pictorial on it, or that’s my intention as I start this. Let’s see how it goes.

There is a strange fruit over here, at least I thought so the first time I saw it back in the 1980s. The locals call it langka—I just call it jackfruit. We have a nice sized tree in our yard that does a pretty good job of producing these gigantic “berries.” I call them berries because the jackfruit sort of resembles humongous mulberries with their similar segmented outer texturing, and according to Wikipedia the jackfruit really is related to the tasty much smaller mulberry. I think they must be related the same way lawn grass is related to 12 foot corn plants.

The first time I saw fully developed jackfruit hanging from a branch high overhead I thought initially that they weren’t real, like some weird natural hoax. I could not believe that anything that big could possibly grow from a tree. Imagine finding a 50 pound Macintosh dangling from an apple tree; of course, it’s not possible.

Last year we had 15 or 20 of these berry behemoths suspended overhead on our jackfruit tree, but were unable to taste even a single one of them. I was disappointed; I love eating jackfruit in my halo halo, a Filipino treat made with concentrated milk, shaved ice and a “mix mix” of various confections like colorful gelatins, syrupy fruit and sweet beans. Yummy.

A big problem with growing these tasty jackfruit giants is their propensity to rot before they attain full ripeness. We touched on this very subject one day when my electrician buddy stopped by. Sitting at the porch table with drinks in hand looking up at my tree loaded with a score of huge rotting fruit, he told me the secret is to keep them covered with plastic bags from the time the jackfruit are still unblemished.

According to him, what starts the fruit rotting are bats from where they nibble at them during the night. He says once the skin is opened by the bats it allows bugs and bacteria to do their nasty business. I don’t know; maybe he’s right. I know there certainly are a lot of bats swooping and looping around but I don’t think any of them are fruit eaters. The way they fly, making impossible turns in the air; it appears they are going after insects. I don’t think insect eating bats also eat fruit. Maybe I’m wrong.

My doubts concerning the bats notwithstanding I had Divine’s high climbing nephew, the fearless “Ungoy,” go up in the tree and cover with plastic bags as many of the jackfruit he could safely reach. Ever concerned with aesthetics, I had him first paint all the bags a dark green; otherwise it would look like I had trash hanging off my tree. I’m a stickler about stuff like that.

Surprisingly, one jackfruit actually sprouted out near the base of the tree about two feet from the ground—strange place for a fruit to grow. That one was easy to cover, although I had Ungoy go ahead and do it along with the rest.

After awhile I mostly forgot about my plastic covered fruit, but every so often I’d inspect them for progress. After a few weeks I noticed that the bags had started to bulge as the jackfruit began to expand in them. They looked like when you blow into a plastic bag just before popping it in your sister’s unsuspecting ear.

I kept asking when they would be ripe enough to try, but I kept getting a “Hindi pa” from them—Not yet. I continued to ask, and more frequently as I became concerned while observing that the unprotected jackfruit, ballooning to the size of oversized loaves of bread, turned brown, starting in certain spots initially, and then with time, those rotten spots joined into a single overall disgusting black putridity.

The fact that these gigantic fruit are hovering precariously over your head can be disconcerting if you think to look up and see them up there. As I said, they can get up to 30 or 40 pounds, so if you are unlucky enough to be under one when it happens to fall, you are likely to come away with at least a minor concussion.

This year we were indeed fortunate enough to be able to eat at least a half dozen of my jacks. I don’t know why, but not all shielded inside the plastic came through unspoiled. It seems these giant fruit with their seemingly tough skin are quite vulnerable to a number of insects and bacteria.

One of the last of the rotten ones fell today. I’m always pleased not to have been in the landing zone when it happens. Cradled in your arms, with their astounding girth and weight, they feel like a rigid limbless body. In size, the only other comparable fruit or vegetable I can think of are super pumpkins and jumbo watermelons. Both those big babies can also get so large that they must be cradled in both arms to carry them; then again, both also grow resting on the ground, where large fruits and veggies are SUPPOSED to grow when they intend to reach massive proportions.

One of the largest of the jacks that we were able to successfully grow to consumable maturity was the one that sprouted near the ground. We cut it free just yesterday in fact. It’s the one in Divine’s arms in the pic below. I asked her to pose with it for about 4 shots; by the last one her back and knees began to give out. It probably weighed 35 pounds or so. Wikipedia says they can get up to 80 pounds. No way! I just can’t imagine that.

Still on the subject of size, the stems attaching the jackfruit to the tree are correspondingly thick and branchlike. These branches carrying the ful weight of the fruit are also necessarily very flexible. Check out the photos—you can see that they are under enormous pressure appearing like ropey rubber bands bending to their limit under the strain of the fruit’s weight. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything like it.

One night during a storm, several of the super-large extremely rotten ones splattered with a thud onto the lawn below. Once again, the comparison to a body comes to mind; in this case, to a decomposing cadaver. Huge blow flies, the kind that go after decaying meat began to swarm aboard the nasty wet mess. The smell at that early point is a combination of rot and sweet. Ugh. The decomp juice, as they call it sometimes on the CSI shows, is so harsh that any spot on the yard soaked with it for more than a few minutes dies out for several weeks. I wasted no time composting the rancid fruit flesh underground with all the other yard waste from that day. A week later I happened to dig back into the same area—big mistake—there was no longer even a hint of a sweet aroma, now it smelled exactly like a rotting animal, complete with wriggling maggots and worms.

Contrast that bit of graphic revoltingness to the perfectly ripened jackfruit we harvested yesterday. I was going to say pick, but that word simply doesn’t apply. I had to use the extra sharp pruning clippers to cut the thick tough stem. Even then it didn’t come off easy.

For the photo-opp Divine brought out the largest knife in the kitchen. Watching her through the camera lens I can say in no way is cutting through a jackfruit like cutting through an equally large watermelon or pumpkin. I’ll use the same comparison as before; jackfruit “flesh” is dense and as resistant to a knife blade as is raw muscle tissue. She really had to work at cutting through the center of that fruit “body.”

Before it can be eaten, the yellowish inner fruit has be simmered into a softened condition, again, much like meat has to be cooked before the tissue can be successfully masticated and consumed. Folks here love the stuff. I like it as well, but pretty much only served in halo-halo, the sweet treat I described earlier.

This household eats the stuff up almost as fast as it can be prepared. Still, that last big one provided enough of the sweet gooey stuff to fill several jars. Of course, they are emptying fast, as expected. In fact, I just had a big glass of halo-halo myself which, of course, included a big old dollop of jackfruit. Delicious!

This was supposed to be a quickie pictorial, but as usual, I had more to write about than I thought I would. My apologies.


And speaking of pictorial, click here to view the full flickr slideshow of My Jackfruit Tree.

4 comments:

Opass said...

I like jackfruit too, although it's really messy to extract the edible portion from the useless pulp. Your hand gets all kinds of starchy, sticky stuff that is very hard to wash off.

Hey, I just learned last week while I was down south that the seeds of jackfruit are edible as well. Save the seeds (There are a surprising number in there) and then boil them for a short time. They have a crunchy, starchy flavor. Peel off the skin before eating though.

As a vegetarian traveling around this country I often see jackfruit in local eateries. But it's the vegetable dish, not the fruit. In the vegetable serving it's white and no longer sweet. It goes quite nicely with rice.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Reading about it on the net, I see that JF is so plentiful in many parts of India that the starchy "vegetable" way of preparing it is actually more of a local staple than rice. And to think I had never even heard of this wonder fruit/vegetable until I was in my mid 20s.

I wouldn't know about how difficult or messy the preparation--ain't my job! grin...

Ed Abbey said...

This has been quite the learning experience for me. Thanks for the pictorial. I wonder how those cans of jackfruit that you see in the grocery store are raised and prepared. I've never eaten one outside of halohalo in the RP.

Amadeo said...

Phil:

JF is also good as an ingredient for fried turrones. (Yummy)

In your part of the country, it is called langka, but becomes nangka here in the south.