FOOD Jackfruit365, an entrepreneurial venture, aims to bring the humble jackfruit on to the fine dining menu
James Joseph was nine when his maternal uncle in Piravom told him, “A jackfruit tree in the yard extends human life by 10 years. It works like a bottle brush for your intestinal walls.” However, through James’ years in the corporate world across the United States, United Kingdom and India, he noticed that the fruit rarely made it to fine dining tables. “It amazed me that something so rich was being ignored. When I saw matters through a chef’s eyes though, I realised the fruit was tough to handle because it’s smelly, sticky and seasonal, hence difficult to procure,” says James. So in October 2012, at 41, James quit his job at Microsoft and began Jackfruit365, an entrepreneurial venture that aims to revamp how jackfruit is used and perceived.
The idea was sown in his mind during a dinner at the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai in 2010, where he was served varqui crab and varqui mushroom, a dish that placed cutlets of mashed crab meat or mushroom between thin crisp filo sheets. “I wondered then, why they couldn’t make varqui jack, since jackfruit is considered ‘vegetable meat’ anyway,” asks James. The thought led him to re-imagine the current uses of jackfruit in food. Inspired by the success of McDonald’s vegetable burger, James went to childhood friend and chef Roy Pothen, who then created a jackfruit burger where the raw fruit’s flesh was used in place of potato mash. “He also used powdered jackfruit seed instead of bread crumbs, and the experiment was successful!” says James.
It was at this stage that James acknowledged that even if jackfruit could be experimented with, its unwieldy bulk would hamper its widespread use.
The answer lay in minimising complexities during the cold chain of transportation, storage and distribution; and the key was to dehydrate and freeze-dry the jackfruit bulb (chola). “Once you remove the water content of the jackfruit, its 1 kg weight can be reduced to crisp and dry chola pieces that weigh 180 gms and fit into a ziplock packet. At the point of use they can be re-hydrated and they swell to regular bulb size,” says James. Jackfruit365 operates from Aluva, where James is currently settled, and works with Amalgam, a company based in Wellington Island, to source, process, pack and supply its freeze-dried jackfruit.
With the fruit now made manageable, James approached various top chefs across the country to incorporate jackfruit into their dishes. “Through their creations, I soon understood that with freeze dried, ripe jackfruit you can make any dish you make with apple, since it retains its sweetness. And with the raw variety, which is neutral in taste, you can make any dish where you would traditionally use potato,” says James. The fruit of his labour is available in Kochi at the Bubble Cafe restaurant in Taj Gateway, where chef Jaffer Ali has incorporated James’ freeze-dried jackfruit into dishes that have been staples on the dinner menu during Onam.
For starters, we are served the dish where it all began - the varqui jack. The fillet blends jackfruit with minced chicken subtly enough to not know you are eating the fruit unless told. The texture and taste of jackfruit is far bolder in the main course - jackfruit chemeen lasange - a heavy, fusion creation which makes the conventionally European dish distinctly Malayali. There is also the taka tak chakka where the stretchy, chewy feel of chakka chola is well explored. “We don’t realise it, but 80 per cent of the jackfruit harvest is wasted because it lacks a market. That’s a pity, especially in Kerala. Because if we want a sustainable future, we shouldn’t be shipping in fruits like apple all the way from Himachal Pradesh, but rather using our own native fruits,” explains James. Thus, we close with jackfruit pie, which is much like its inspiration - the apple pie - but sufficiently different in flavour to stand its own. James concludes, “When you eat jackfruit, only your tongue should know, really, not the whole world!”