Jackfruit grow on short stalks right from the trunk and branches, and they are the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, bigger even than the durian. While a typical fruit might weigh anywhere from 15 to 20 kg, they can reach up to 35. Most of the ones I see in the market are almost a metre long.
Jackfruit has a few unusual attributes. All those pimply bumps on the outside and the many arils on the inside are actually the result of hundreds of female flowers growing and fusing together, so each fruit is actually many fruits. Cutting one open exposes an inedible central core and hundreds of arils nestled amongst many flattened, somewhat fibrous filaments, often called rags. These rags are unfertilized flowers. The fruits grow on short stalks right from the trunk and branches, and they are the largest known tree-borne fruit in the world, bigger even than the durian. While a typical fruit might weigh anywhere from 15 to 20 kg, they can reach up to 35. Most of the ones I see in the market are almost a metre long.Though some people say the fruit are stinky, the bad odour mostly comes from the very large or overripe ones.
My mother-in-law slices immature jackfruit flesh and uses it to make a soup, canh mít, flavoured with lốt leaves and ruốc (shrimp paste). Sometimes she adds shrimp to the soup. I love her cooking, but this isn’t one of my favorites. Although the unripe jackfruit has a meaty texture which makes it popular for preparing vegetarian dishes at pagodas and on meatless days, I find it bland and starchy. This is a people’s dish, sometimes called a dish for the poor, unlike many of the local Huế specialties that find their roots in the imperial kitchens. Still, the popularity of jackfruit in Huế does have imperial roots; during his eleven-year reign, King Minh Mạng issued an edict ordering people to plant jackfruit trees everywhere that the land lay uncultivated.
Sometimes we buy a chunk of fresh jackfruit (never a whole one—they’re usually just too big!) and we invite family members who live in neighbouring houses over for a feast. We cut the fruit into smaller chunks to make it less unwieldy, and then we sit plucking the fleshy arils out from the surrounding stringy filaments and eating them. The seeds pop out of the sections easily. To me, the aromatic, crunchy, sometimes waxy sections taste like a banana-pineapple fruit salad. We are careful to oil the knife before cutting the fruit, because it exudes a sticky white latex that gums up everything it touches. Children even smear the latex on sticks to trap dragonflies in flight.
The multitude of arils in a single fruit makes the jackfruit perfect for sharing, and typical of Huế people, my family loves to get together for a fruit feast. (Even a single mango, cut properly, becomes a joyous impromptu gathering for several siblings and cousins.)
Although the rags, called xơ mít (jackfruit fibres) are edible too, many people don’t eat them. Some cooks prepare them kho style (stewed in fish sauce and caramel sauce) with fish during the flood season. They’re also popular in vegetarian kitchens to make dishes like xơ mít sautéed with lemon grass and chilis.
In the afternoons, the silence of our lane during the siesta hours is punctuated only by the sounds of cicadas and birds until, one by one, people open their eyes, stretch, and open their shutters and doors again. The last stragglers are awakened by the calls of itinerant sellers hawking various delicacies that are popular late-afternoon snacks. One of the women arrives in our lane, yoke bouncing on her shoulder, with trays of assorted Huế specialties, including mít trộn, a sort of jackfruit salad with glass noodles, lettuce and herbs.
One of the many sellers of chè (sweet soupy snacks) offers a jackfruit chè laced with coconut milk, but this chè seems to be more common in the south. I don’t see it very often in Huế.
Two main varieties of jackfruit are grown in Việt Nam (as well as a few others), both bearing starchy fruits that sweeten as they grow and ripen. Mít ướt (wet jackfruit) has a softer, sweeter flesh with a deep golden hue, while mít ráo (dry jackfruit) tends to be a little drier and crunchier, and rather pale. The huge seeds of all the varieties (except, of course, the seedless kind) have a nutty, creamy flavour and texture, but they require lengthy cooking, and they induce flatulence. A friend of mine nicknamed her son Mít, the Vietnamese name for jackfruit, because of his childhood fondness for the seeds, and the malodorous results.
Việt Nam is a major producer of jackfruit, both for local consumption and for export (fresh, frozen, canned, and made into crunchy chips). The wood is prized for its resistance to rot and splitting, and is used to make furniture and doors. Craftsmen in Huế are known for their beautiful, high-quality jackwood Buddhist statues and mõ, the wooden fish used to keep the beat while reciting sutras or during rites. In 2010, Huế craftsmen built Việt Nam’s biggest drum for Hà Nội’s thousandth birthday. (Sadly, they used three trees, all over 500 years old—collectively older than the city of Hà Nội—and I think it would have been nicer to leave the trees growing.)
The jackfruit tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is a member of the same family that includes mulberries and figs, and grows in most parts of the tropics. They grow as tall as 30 metres, with a thick growth of shiny oblong leaves that offers a lovely cool shade on a hot day.
If you want to grow one from seed, you’ll need both space and enough patience to wait several years for the first fruit, although the trees grow fairly quickly. The seeds are only viable for a short time and must not dry out, so you have to plant them right away, preferably in their permanent location. Jackfruit trees are easy to grow, and have few demands, but they have very long and delicate taproots and do not take well to being moved. It takes about eight months from flowering to harvest time. The trees do best in the tropics, with lots of sunshine, heat and humidity, but will tolerate a very brief and light frost.
The giant fruit are low in calories but rich in protein, vitamin B6 and potassium. And according to an article from the Guardian, jackfruit may be a miracle crop: “Researchers say the large, smelly fruit grown could be a replacement for staple crops under threat from climate change”.
If you can read Vietnamese, you might like these two articles I referred to while checking to make sure I had my facts straight about jackfruit dishes in Huế: