Jackfruit: The Vegan Sensation that Saved Sri Lanka

September 17, 2020

My mother grew up in a house of eight people in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, 100km north-east of Colombo. During the island’s severe droughts in the 1970s, most of her family’s humble, home-cooked meals consisted of boiled jackfruit served in a clay pot with a handful of freshly grated coconut. This simple, carb-rich meal fused with natural fats fuelled enough energy for the farmer-family to toil day and night in the dry plains.

Today, Starbucks serves jackfruit in wraps, while Pizza Hut offers it as a topping. The London Evening Standard called jackfruit “the new kimchi, kale and cauliflower all rolled into one”. Pinterest named it “the hottest food trend of 2017”, and more recently, The Guardian declared it “a vegan sensation” thanks to its shredded meat texture.

But for my mother, her memories of growing up are studded with her eldest sister’s myriad jackfruit dishes. She’s particularly fond of kiri kos, a creamy jackfruit curry cooked in coconut milk. For kiri kos, my aunt plucked unripe jackfruits. Decades later in the early 2000s, it was the same tree that pleased my jackfruit cravings as a child. My mother recalls the days where I sat side by side with her as she removed and discarded the sticky white sap – koholla, as she called it in Sinhala – from ripe jackfruit, gobbling up each yellow, egg-like pod.

I loved the strong smell of the ripe fruit. People in the West often describe it as “stinky”, but for me, other Sri Lankans and those living between many parts of India and the rainforests of Malaysia where the fruit naturally grows, this seasonal smell of ripe jackfruit brings immense joy.

Jackfruit is the world’s largest tree-borne fruit and it has a spiky skin that changes colour from green to yellow as it ripens. We use unripe jackfruit in our cooking and eat the ripe fruit raw, just as we eat a ripe mango or an apple. While the West is now touting it as an ethical meat alternative, for centuries, this humble fruit has been revered by Sri Lankans, as it has repeatedly saved the island from starvation.

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