There's some new action when it comes to vegetarian options at the supermarket. Elbowing in front of the tofu and other meat stand-ins is jackfruit. Until recently, jackfruit lived only in Asian markets. Now it has hit the mainstream. Jackfruit is hyped as the new wonder food for non-meat eaters. You can buy it drenched in barbecue sauce, terriyaki, or curried. However, there are also some difficulties in working with the raw form of this enormous, spiny fruit. The Splendid Table managing producer Sally Swift talked with The Washington Post's food and dining editor Joe Yonan to learn more about the ups and downs of dealing with jackfruit.

Sally Swift: Joe, both you and Bonnie Benwick – your deputy editor at The Washington Post – have recently published articles about jackfruit. Why are we seeing so much jackfruit?

Joe Yonan: There's a couple things going on. There's been a longtime availability in a lot of Asian markets of the fresh jackfruit. Sometimes...

SS: They’re immense, like, bigger than your head. And they're all poky all over the place. It's quite daunting.

JY: Yes, absolutely. They look a little bit like a porcupine, a green porcupine.

Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan

SS: Exactly.

JY: The size of maybe two or three of your heads. Sometimes you see them hacked open or sold in big pieces, which is because it's really daunting. They're huge and a bit difficult to work with. The flesh is really sticky and it coats your cutting board, it coats your knife.

SS: What does it taste like when it's ripe?

JY: It's a beautiful taste. It's a little mango-y, a little banana-y, a little pineapple-y. It's got sort of all those tropical flavors. There's been some theory that the gum Juicy Fruit was based on the flavor of jackfruit. Wrigley's has never disclosed that, but people have theorized that. It's got a little bit of that sweet, but kind of mysterious flavor, too.

SS: It's being touted as a meat substitute, correct?

JY: Right. And there's been some misinformation about this out there. It is two different things, like mangoes that are green versus mangoes that are ripe. A green mango is used in a lot of slaws and stuff in Southeast Asia. In the same way, a green jackfruit has a very different texture: it's much firmer and you can pull it the same way you pull pork, it's got these little strands, and it's got a chewier texture. In some parts of the world, people have used it as a meat substitute. It’s been packaged as such by companies here in the United States. One of them is called Upton’s Naturals. There's another one that's called The Jackfruit Company. They are seasoning it and packaging it as a shelf-stable way for you to get it quick. You can put it in sandwiches, stir-fry it, or eat it in a lot of the same ways that you might have shredded meat.

SS: But the crazy thing about jackfruit, from what I understand, is that it's very low in protein. Why would we do that?

JY: It is somewhat of a head-scratcher to me because if I want something that reminds me of the texture of meat, I have a lot of options. I can eat the portobello mushroom or a beet. Personally, I’m a little mystified about why you need to source something from halfway across the world in order to have a meat substitute. Having said that, I can't fault people for looking for different options, and it's pretty tasty.

SS: You worked up a recipe. What did you do to make it work for you?

JY: For one thing I prefer to work with jackfruit that's not seasoned and flavored because it gives you a lot of options, you can take it in a lot of different directions. It's not that easy to find that way. But in big Asian supermarkets you can find it canned. You want to look for the jackfruit that's canned in water or brine, not in syrup. You slice it and pan fry it. I found a recipe online that suggested some things and I simplified it. I tossed it with some jerk-type seasonings, and then combined it in a wrap-type burrito with black beans to help that protein and some mango. It was delicious. [Ed. Note: see link for Joe's recipe for Jackfruit, Black Bean, and Mango Burritos]

We had a big, fresh jackfruit in the office, and I watched Bonnie Benwick hack into it. She wrote a really fun piece with a video about how people should handle jackfruit, but I do think there's been a lot of confusion between the two types. People have read about jackfruit as a meat substitute and as a great possibility for vegetarians and vegans. Then they see the giant fruit in their Whole Foods and think, "I can hack that up and put it in tacos." That is not something that I would advise because it would be like eating a banana taco.

Sally Swift

Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.