What? Biriyani and masala dosas made from jackfruit? Well, techie-turned-entrepreneur James Joseph proves the versatility of the humble fruit by freeze-drying it. Shonali Muthalaly on his return-to-the-roots story

This is exactly the kind of story people love. And James Joseph knows that. It even involves an alluring pastiche of familiar formats. The story of a small town boy who succeeds in the big bad corporate world. The story of the prodigal son, returning home determined to set things right. And a children’s tale about a magical fruit with extraordinary powers.

Looking fondly at a giant jackfruit carefully set on a table at Sanjeevanam restaurant in Nungambakkam, James Joseph, founder and brand ambassador of Jackfruit365, quotes an old Malayalam saying: “If you have a jackfruit tree in your yard, it extends your life by 10 years”. As the Sanjeevanam chefs busily whip up an astonishing variety of dishes made with jackfruit, James settles down and describes his journey.

Super food

“I grew up near Pala, a small town in Kerala between Kottayam and Ernakulam. Growing up, we loved the jackfruit season — it begins in January, but the sweetest fruits are in April and May. By June 1, the monsoon hits and it’s gone. While it’s in season, everyone eats so much jackfruit that it acts like a bottle brush for your intestines, cleaning them out.” Although jackfruit is now being acknowledged as super food, high in nutrients and phytonutrients, huge amounts of it are still wasted every season. Kerala alone wastes an estimated 35 crore jackfruits annually — about 75 per cent of the harvest, according to an article on the State government’s website.

“It’s labour intensive, and since it’s perceived as a ‘poor man’s fruit’, it doesn’t bring in much money. Right now it’s about Rs. 30 for one jackfruit averaging five kg. By April, farmers will get nothing for it.” Farmers have been known to put up notices on trees, in fact, exhorting passers by to pick the fruit and take it home. “There is not enough demand for the supply.”

After talking to chefs, who said they don’t use it because it’s “sticky, smelly and seasonal”, James began Jackfruit365, a company that freeze-dries the fruit, thus offsetting the cost of transportation and storage by a big margin. Freeze-drying reduces the weight by 82 per cent — the 180-gm pack, which, when soaked, will yield a kg of jackfruit, and it can be stored at room temperature for 365 days (hence the name!).

A waiter interrupts, setting down a plate loaded with bowls displaying the versatility of the product. The raw fruit has been rehydrated then turned into cutlets, biriyani and masala dosas. The ripe, dehydrated fruit has been used for more traditional preparations such as payasam, ela ada and kozhukattais. “It doesn’t have to be conventional,” says James, with a grin. “Once you eat a jackfruit pie, you’ll never be able to go back to pumpkin again.”

The jackfruit pie is clearly a product of James’ international exposure combined with his roots. After spending 20 years in a village, James moved to Thiruvananthapuram, to study engineering, after which he pursued a degree at Warwick University in the U.K. Determined to be a ‘global manager’, he went on to work in the U.S. and the U.K., where he joined Microsoft, before returning to India. “I was based in Bangalore, but my goal was always move back to Kerala,” he says, talking about how he finally convinced Microsoft to let him operate from Aluva in Kochi. “I hate traffic,” he shrugs, “By the time an average employee in Mumbai gets to the office, I have done a half-day’s work.” Eventually, he quit to start ‘Professional Bharathi’ in an attempt to persuade NRI professionals to return home. “If they don’t come back with their children, our villages and small towns will die.”

Determined to demonstrate that there are business opportunities even in the smallest of towns, he began his tryst with jackfruit a little more than a year ago. “When I realised it could be freeze-dried and sold, it was a eureka moment,” he says, adding, “I want people to compete with me. This should be like the Amul story.” Drought-resistant, evergreen and environment-friendly, the indigenous tree is as good for farmers as it is for consumers, he adds. “It’s organic. And can be a shock-absorber against farmer suicides… I don’t even consider it a crop. It just grows. When other crops fail, you can always count on the jackfruit tree.”