If you think all meat substitutes are awful, you don't know jack(fruit).
In the past two decades, vegetarian cuisine has come a long way. But meat substitutes have remained stubbornly stuck in the Tofurkey-era. Aside from the development of lab-grown meat—which is still a few years away from the supermarket shelf—and pea-based burgers, vegetarians with carnivorous cravings are basically limited to tempeh, tofu, soy crumbles, and seitan.
And sure, when manipulated, well sauced, and scrambled with other ingredients, these alternatives can pass as meat-ish. However, if you’re a vegetarian who opted to delete meat for health reasons, swapping chicken breasts for massively processed soy and wheat-based ingredients probably seems counter-productive.
Which is why Daniel Staackmann thinks jackfruit is going to be the next big thing in plant-based cuisine. Staackmann has been a vegan for 20 years, and he’s run a vegan foods company, called Upton’s Naturals, for the past decade. When he stumbled across jackfruit at a Nepalese restaurant, he realized it could be his next big cash crop. “It’s very much like the texture of pulled chicken or pork and it has a mild taste, which makes it perfect for soaking up the flavor of whatever you’re making,” he says.
Staackmann is talking about unripe jackfruit, not the ripe, sweet variety you sometimes see for sale in Asian markets in the US. Domestically, unripe jackfruit is almost impossible to find—especially fresh. Usually it’s relegated to a dust-topped can on the very back shelf at your neighborhood Asian market. But the fresh, unripe variety, which Staackmann is importing from Thailand, is a different, ahem… non-animal.
“It tastes very much like a specific preparation of meat,” says Daniel Strong, the executive chef of New York, plant-based pop-up Chickpea & Olive. “It’s not so much toothsome as tender; we have it on our menu as a BBQ jackfruit sandwich.” When customers ask what they’re eating, Strong says, “surprise is usually their first reaction. But then they want more.”
And from a nutritional standpoint, they’re entitled to another serving. Though it may taste like pulled pork, the nutrition content is about as un-pig-like as you can get. Jackfruit is fat-free and high in fiber and potassium. Unlike tofu and other meat substitutes, it doesn’t have much protein, just one gram per serving. It’s fairly low in calories too, with just 45 calories per 2.65 ounces.
Perhaps the best thing about jackfruit, though, is its ability to grow, and grow, and grow. The bulbous fruits can grow to be the size of a large dog, making it the largest tree fruit in the world. The plant also thrives without much need for fertilizer or pesticides. In both India and Sri Lanka, governments encourage residents to plant the trees to aid in food security. The flesh of the fruit can be eaten both ripe and unripe and the seeds can be ground into a high protein flour. While jackfruits would only grow in certain tropical parts of the U.S. (like Florida), they could offer a high yield, climate-change tolerant food source, which is more than can be said for pulled-pork.
But before you go out and buy a jackfruit tree, know that there is one other similarity between the fruit and the meat it imitates: butchering it is a traumatic affair. “There’s a lot of natural latex in it, so it makes this really big mess,” says Staackmann. “The young fruit are especially messy. You cut into it and its literally like glue is pouring out of the fruit. It’s a real pain to do at home.” Staackmann sells his product already processed to save his customers from the mess. If you’re more of the DIY type, have lots of towels handy.
Still, a little mess seems like a small price to pay for saucy—and dare we even say meaty—vegan BBQ sandwiches.