Chakka a.k.a. jackfruit, meant summer vacation, long, carefree days, sticky fingers that when pulled apart produce those strings from the resin, the distinctive aroma of a ripening fruit in the house, and the array of delicious dishes that will follow through the summer up to Onam. Growing up in Thiruvananthapuram (then Trivandrum), my chakka (jackfruit) memories are wrapped around both the city, where we lived and in Nedumbassery, my father’s ancestral home. The large mammoth trees with pendulous fruits hanging were a sight we looked forward to. When it comes to jackfruit, delicious things come in large packets.The beginning of the season is usually heralded by the arrival of idi chakka (the small tender jackfruit used for cooking) in the local shanties. Peeled and chopped up, the pieces are steam-cooked and then mashed (seed and everything inside) with a wooden pestle (don’t try the blender, it will become an inedible mush) and then garnished with coconut, jeera etc to make a delicious thoran. We all obviously live and swear by our thorans.
Then, as the season progressed, we would slowly see chakka in the local market, large, medium and small. Thanks to Omana and my mother, who were not deterred by the onerous task of cleaning the jackfruit, we bought and accepted the fruit’s gifts with open arms. The only deterrent was that as much as I loved ripe ‘varikka chakka’ (the variety with firm flesh ), the ‘koozha’ (the flesh tends to have a slimy feel) made me gag. So, despite the taste, I could never down the flesh. Of course that’s what ada allowed, a way to eat it. The fruit was all cleaned, steamed and mixed with jaggery and rice flour to be steam-cooked in banana leaves.
Jackfruit was the mainstay in the menu along with mangoes when we went to my father’s ancestral home located in a remote village. There would always be young men who could bring down these heavy fruits from the trunks of tall, old trees with just a rope and a few shouts here and there to the person standing below. It was important to get the fruit down uninjured. I don’t remember the trees requiring any care, after the initial one year or so.
Chakka was a summer family ritual, unlike mangoes that one could steal away and eat in solitary splendour; jackfruit had to be community or family fruit. It doesn’t take a village but at least two determined souls to clean and get it into an edible form. Around mid-morning, the sisters and the sisters-in-law sat down to chat, clean and chop the raw fruits for lunch. The older kids sat around late afternoon after oiling their hands to clean the ripe jackfruit for the evening snack, all the while eating the pods they cleaned. Unless one of the elders rescued sufficient pods, the others would have been left with nothing to eat. The seeds were collected in a jar to be used later.
In the meantime, the younger ones were tasked with picking up clean jackfruit leaves. Twisted into a cup and pierced with a small piece of irkil (coconut leaf midrib), these instant spoons were used for eating our kanji in the night. The outer prickly skin and all the white stringy bits were fed to the cows that munched happily on them.
Jackfruit featured in almost all the meals during the summer. The chakka puzhukku, a quintessential Kerala preparation using raw jackfruit and seeds, were a staple during lunch. Coconut, cumin and green chillies along with garlic was used in this dish that was also consumed as a rice replacement. When our grandmother got some time, she sat down to clean a large pile of seeds to make a small thoran made with drumsticks, which also fruits prodigiously during summer, and grated coconut. I realise how patient she was, now that I am forced to clean the seeds myself.
The raw jackfruit pieces are chopped lengthwise to make thoran and aviyal, each seed is cut into four pieces lengthwise after scraping off the two layers of skin. The raw fruit is chopped into small round pieces to make erishheri, spiced with pepper and cumin and garnished with grated, roasted coconut. The seeds are again a big favourite with me, I love them in thorans, mezhukku varatty (the seeds sauteed in oil with some spices), pulinkari (made with mango, drumstick and jackfruit seeds with a coconut gravy) or the delicious theeyal made with the seeds cut into round shape. Every preparation had its specific geometry, I never understood why, but followed it diligently. I checked with my mother who is all of 75 and she told me, “That’s how my grandmother used to do it”. How the embedded memories dictate our tastes and actions!
Raw and cooked
Almost everybody in Kerala loves ripe jackfruit; however, it is the raw fruit that won my heart, even as a child. I loved and continue to love all preparations with raw jackfruit and its seed; and possess a voracious appetite to eat it uncooked. Even today, if anybody is cleaning a raw jackfruit, I would shamelessly sit beside them to pop a few pods into my mouth. I am told that it would give me a stomach ache, which has never happened.
My indomitable farmer-aunts could make chips that crunched between your teeth satisfyingly with that right amount of crispness without being chewy (a problem with most commercially bought chips). They made chakka varatty that one would kill for, which went into chakka prathaman for Onam or came in small delicious packets back with us to Thiruvananthapuram. This was used as jam and spread or eaten plain till the last bit was licked off the bottom of the container.
Today, I have the privilege of being friends with Lilly chechi who makes me delicious chakka varatty that lasts me through the year and chakka chips, almost as good as my aunts’, during the three months jackfruits are available on the natural farm, she shares with her environmentalist husband. It is from her that I learnt that you need jackfruits with thin-layered pods to make good chips. She makes chakka varatty only from the fruits of specific trees. Today, jackfruit has become all the rage, and innovative cooks and chefs are doing wonders with it. I look forward to the new tastes but my jackfruit memories are anchored in the tastes of my childhood.
The author is co-founder of Bio Basics, a social venture retailing organic food; and a consultant to the Save Our Rice Campaign