Author: Alaka Yeravadekar
The first thing that you notice is the smell. The strong sweet odour assails your nostrils and can drive away anyone but the most daunting visitor – or a true jackfruit connoisseur. Why connoisseur? Well, this fruit is not for everyone. It is a developed taste.
Every year in summer, I along with a few friends take a pilgrimage to one of the wilder habitats of Karnataka. And picking up a jackfruit on the way is always on the to-do list.
We stop the car on
spying a row of jackfruit sellers. “Come here, take these... best fruit...”, “O Taee, check this one.” Keen eyed sunburnt vendors with fresh prickly produce lying on the ground, vying for our custom. Did I say prickly? Lying on the ground as opposed to in a straw basket? One look at a whole jackfruit and you will understand why. I gingerly heft a small one with both hands. The feel of the prickly outer skin is akin to acupressure. I try to guess its weight. About 4-5 kilos? Could be. The largest fruit to hang from a tree, a fully grown jack can average upto three feet in length and a foot in diameter. Certainly not a fruit to be trifled with.
A jackfruit does not possess the juicy luscious look of a ripe red strawberry. Nor does it have the alluring velvet soft skin of a peach, or the smooth, warm and inviting feel of a hapus (alphonso) mango. From a distance one might easily mistake it for a large boulder. On closer inspection you can see specimens ranging from green to dirty yellow, turning to a raw umber in parts. The more the dollops of umber, the greater the chance of the fruit being ready for eating. Being distinctly unprepossessing in appearance, its tough outer skin is equipped with short spiky projections, which while not sharp, are still enough to ward off anything but a light caress.
How then does this fruit attract its customers- the wild animals that will gorge on the sweet flesh and spread its seeds far and wide?
We are at a ramshackle teashop in a hamlet near Dandeli jungle. There is a strong waft of jackfruit. Outside in the courtyard stands a fine jackfruit tree with its shiny green leaves creating deep shade. “We are even visited by bears when the fruits ripen. This smell carries far and attracts them. Look, here are some bear claw marks”, the shop owner says leading the way to the tree. Indeed, there are some scrapes on the bark. The sloth bear, a native of the Western Ghats, is one of the bigger mammals that love this fruit. Apart from the elephants that is.
But there are others waiting for a bite too. While wandering through the jungle we have seen decaying jackfruits fallen on the ground, burst open after having reached a fully ripened state. Then the monkeys, squirrels and other small rodents also get at it. The fruit bats are also supposed to be partial to the jack, and devour it when on the tree, though how they break open the shell beats me.
At home the fruit divides the household into those who cannot wait to devour its flesh and those who want it thrown out pronto! Next morning I resolve to operate on this prickly giant and divest it of its gorgeous edible pods. Tell people that you cut open a jackfruit is a sure way to gain some respect and make them look at you with new eyes. If you have ever seen it being cut you’ll know why. This fruit has a very thick skin which produces a copious amount of milky white sap when opened. The sap is sticky and no doubt serves some purpose in protecting the seeds inside from casual marauders. To avoid getting fingers caught in the white mess, those who professionally deseed jackfruits do so after smearing oil on their hands. So there I am, seated on the ground, a small steel bowl of coconut oil to my right, a very sharp and thin knife in my hands, and the forbidding bundle in the front, silently holding on to its sweet secret.
Cutting a jackfruit is an art and also a science if you wish to keep the pod flesh intact. Cut just once across its diameter to obtain two halves. After that, making cuts along the length helps to keep the pods whole. Once cracked open, you are rewarded with a truly marvellous sight. There are lessons here for the packaging industry. Fleshy bulbs the colour of yellow banana peel, arrayed in a perfect circle and nestled in shock proof packaging of thick white strands, glow with good health. Each bulb or pod encases a seed with its own thin satiny skin. A pod can easily reach three to four inches of length, with the seed usually a nice plump nut over an inch tall. Each pod is attached to the inside of the skin rather than to any central core. All one has to do is to hold each pod and give it a jerk in the right direction to separate it from the main fruit. A lack of knowledge of this structure can result in slashed, ineptly removed pods, and much frustration.
So much of jackfruit grows along the western coast of peninsular India that a lot of the ripened fruit is mashed, spread thinly into individual rounds and dried in the hot April sun to make phanas poli. In Konkan you also get a variety of this fruit known as ‘barka’ with squishy pod flesh that is easy to pulp. The traditionally made ‘poli’ is shaped like a chapati, and has an uneven, mottled, reddish-ochre appearance. Tear a piece off and pop it into your mouth. It is sweet, chewy, and tastes of the sun. So unlike the commercially processed square tablets available in the supermarket that only leave an aftertaste of sugar and preservatives.
About The Author:
Thought monkey, lover of rain, adept threader of needles, Alaka's sketches, paintings and photographs reflect her deep love for the natural world. Her poetry and non-fiction have been published in print and on the web. Professionally she is a Cost Accountant with a passion for teaching. You can read more of her work at: http://alakaline.blogspot.in/