Entrepreneur James Joseph is on a quest to make the jackfruit a gourmet ingredient for all seasons

Jackfruit induced tender coconut juice; Galouti kebabs made with unripe jackfruit; grilled jackfruit sandwich infused with coconut; jackfruit quesadillas; jackfruit sorbet; jackfruit crème brulee... The chef’s special menu for the day at Villa Maya restaurant had a lot of sweet and savoury vegan surprises. But wait. Jackfruit, often known as the poor man’s meat, is usually ingredient non grata in the kitchens of fancy restaurants thanks to its smelly, sticky nature, not to mention its propensity to attract flies. Besides jackfruit season is well and truly over in Kerala, until March, at least... Then how is it possible to serve up a jackfruit-themed menu in the middle of December?

That’s when we’re introduced to James Joseph, founder of Professional Bharthi, a social networking platform that helps Indian professionals find their way back to their home towns and villages while continuing their careers. Through his new venture JackFruit365, the Aluva-based entrepreneur, a former director of marketing at Microsoft (he was responsible for improving relations between the IT firm and corporate India) and graduate of the College of Engineering, Trivandrum, is on a quest to re-brand the use and perception of the humble jackfruit as a gourmet ingredient for all seasons. Thanks to him ripe and unripe jackfruit is now available freeze-dried, for, well, 365 days a year! Good tidings for those who crave chakka puzhukku, chakka appam, chakka thoran, chakka payasam, chakka varatti... and just about everything that has to do with the jackfruit.

James’ affection for the jackfruit is infectious. “Did you know that 82 percent of jackfruit is water? It’s full of fibre and has amazing health benefits. Did you know that from five kilos of you get 1kg of bulb? Did you know that a fair majority of jackfruit crop in the country goes to waste?… It’s my favourite fruit, something which I used to look forward to eating every season. In fact, I still remember what my maternal uncle, Philip, a retired school teacher, once told me: ‘A jackfruit tree in the yard extends a human life by 10 years. It works as a bottle brush for your intestinal wall,’” says James.

His eureka moment, so to speak, came in 2010. For a round table meeting with his clients, he had managed to get Chef Hemant Oberoi at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai to replicate a dinner that he had prepared for United States President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, during their visit earlier in the year. “One of the dishes was Varqui Crab for non-vegetarians. For the vegetarians there was the option of Varqui Kumbh (mushrooms). It immediately struck me that the mushrooms could be replaced with jackfruit, which is known for its meaty flavour,” says James. “I started thinking about how one could utilise the fruit and experimented with the idea of a jackfruit burger, which turned out to be a success,” says James. The idea to freeze-dry jackfruit came from his friend. According to the Jackfruit365 website freeze drying reduces the weight of the fruit by 82 per cent.

The entrepreneur now works with Amalgam, a Kochi-based food processing company, to source the jackfruit (muttan varikka, then varikka, and the likes), process it, pack it in air tight plastic bags, and supply the finished product under the label Jackfruit365. “The challenge is in getting chefs to change their perception of the jackfruit as an ingredient that’s difficult to handle. The packets of freeze-dried jackfruit can be stored in room temperature for 365 days and chefs can configure-to-order any dish at the time of consumption with just 15 minutes to rehydrate it. It can be had crispy, as a paste, tender or powdered,” says James. Freeze-dried jackfruit, both ripe and unripe, are available online from www.jackfruit365.com. It will soon be available in gourmet stores in the city.

In case you’re wondering about the verdict on Villa Maya’s Jackfruit365 dishes: Give me more!