fruit culture

The humble jackfruit, once the most wasted fruit, enjoys a second spring in Kerala

The fruit is hardy and easy to grow, has medicinal values, and has spawned a growing industry of processed food products.

Traveling by road from the Theyyam land of Kannur, meandering the snake bends of the Western Ghats to reach Wayanad, haggling with shopkeepers for coffee beans and lemongrass oil at Kozhikode, and ultimately reaching Thrissur, home of Guruvayur and Our Lady of Lourdes Syro-Malabar church, a newfound love and enthusiasm for jackfruit (Arcopatrus heterophyllus), which the Malayalis fondly call chakka, is quite evident.

Till very recently, every Kerala household with a courtyard, in the villages or small towns, had a jackfruit tree because, its fruit — tender or ripe — was an inalienable part of the Malayali diet with mouth-watering names like chakka erissery, chakka puzhukku, idichakka thoran, chakka pulukk and several others. It is nothing unusual for a state that is home to 100-plus varieties of the fruit, of which there exists one that secretes sweetness akin to honey.

Its botanical name, Artocarpus, is derived from the Greek words artos (bread) and carpos (fruit). The name jackfruit is derived from the Portuguese jaca, first mentioned by the physician and naturalist Garcia De Orta in his 1563 book Coloquios Dos Simple E Drogas da India. Its origin identified with the evergreen rainforests of Western Ghats, the fruit also grows in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and the northeastern states.

The world’s largest fruit is called by a variety of names – kathal, panasa, phanas, jaca, nangka, kanoon, met among others. Largely due to the odour of the ripe fruit and the traditional preference for tapioca, jackfruit never gained popularity in the country unlike in the Far Eastern nations.

Potential of jackfruit

It’s only recently that agro-scientists have woken up to the potential of jackfruit. In 2012, the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, initiated a five-year-long study with the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, which has led to the identifying of 105 genotypes of jackfruit nationwide. “We have identified 25 varieties from which we nurture saplings and sell it through Krishi Vigyan Kendras and agriculture colleges and have been unable to cope with the demand,” said Shyamala Reddy, a biotechnology researcher with the Bengaluru-based university.

A jackfruit yatra organised by the Jackfruit Promotion Council in Kerala. (Photo by Jackfruit Promotion Council)
A jackfruit yatra organised by the Jackfruit Promotion Council in Kerala. (Photo by Jackfruit Promotion Council)

Grown in homesteads mostly without any management practices, jackfruit can be identified as one of the promising fruits grown organically by default. Researchers believe that jackfruit could be a replacement for wheat, corn and other staple crops under threat from climate change. According to Narayan Gowda, former vice-chancellor of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, jackfruit is easy to grow, survives pests and diseases and is drought and high temperature-resistant. “It achieves what farmers need in food production when facing a lot of challenges due to climate change,” he said.

While nations, namely Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and the Philippines, gave pride of place to jackfruit, it continued to live in ignominy in the land of its birth. Though packed with nutrition and grown with the least human intervention, it was awaiting a change in perception.

In 2011, Thiruvananthapuram witnessed the state’s first Jackfruit Fest, led by Santhigram, a Gandhian non-profit engaged in issues related to ecology, safe food, and alternative health care, to promote of jackfruit as a staple food, vegetable and medicine. Its partners included the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, Small Farmers Agribusiness Consortium, State Horticulture Mission, Kerala Agricultural University, Kerala State Biodiversity Board and several others.

“The fest served to not only rekindle the love of Malayalis for the wonder fruit but also opened the eyes of the civil society as well leading to policy revision and practical steps towards promoting jackfruit and its numerous value-added products,” L Pankajsashan, general secretary of the Jackfruit Promotion Council, told VillageSquare.in.

Following the success of the fest, the Jackfruit Promotion Council was formed and the Jackfruit Fest was organised in major districts of the state. The latest Kerala Chakka Vilambara Yatra was flagged off by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in July from Thiruvananthapuram. After touring through all 14 districts of the state, it concluded at Kasargod in December.

Jackfruit everywhere

A fruit that till now was meant for squirrels, birds, and cattle, and left to rot during the monsoon months, has got a new slogan in “Panasam Sarvothamam Tatphalam Sarvaguna dayakam (jackfruit fruits everywhere and possesses myriad qualities)“.

Last year, jackfruit growers in the villages of Cherupuzha, Peringome, and East Eleri realised that there is money in jackfruit after having sold jackfruit worth Rs 300,000 to Artocarpus Foods Private Ltd through the Thejaswini Coconut Farmers Producer Company, a collective of small and medium-holding farmers belonging to Kannur and Kasaragod districts. “Till now, marketing jackfruit was an unheard of concept and most of it was left to waste, but things are changing and now a farmer can get Rs 4 per kg,” Shebi Zacharias, CEO of the Thejaswini Coconut Farmers Producer Company, told VillageSquare.in.

A shopkeeper sells jackfruit. (Photo by Sri Padre / Adhike Patrike)
A shopkeeper sells jackfruit. (Photo by Sri Padre / Adhike Patrike)

The Thejaswini Coconut Farmers Producer Company till recently concentrated only on coconut and coconut-based products, but now has involved its members in jackfruit as well. “As processed fruit gets a better price we are planning a processing unit which will benefit the growers immensely,” Zacharias said.

The story is similar for People’s Service Society Palakkad, a non-governmental organisation working among farmers, which has been involved in the processing, packaging and branding of jackfruit value-added products since 2013. Its 20-plus ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat products sold under the brand name Jaxo 100 include Jack Wonder Nut Cake, Jack Seed Flour, Dehydrated Ripe Jackfruit and others.

“We received around 160,000 jackfruits between January 2106 and January 2017, brought in by some 4,000 farmers, which were processed and value-added products made worth over Rs 1.1 crore,” said Shaji Elanjimattam, chief coordinator of the People’s Service Society Palakkad. This is an excellent example of natural resource management because fruits that otherwise would have been wasted were enhanced in value.

According to the Department of Economic and Statistics of Kerala, in 2011-2102, jackfruit was grown in 90,333 hectares, leaving fruits like mango, banana, plantain and pineapple far behind. More ignored than relished, jackfruit till recently was the most wasted fruit in the state. As the fruit is not taken seriously, it’s difficult to pinpoint the volume of wastage.

Known as the hub of volleyball sports, Vettilappara village, neighbour to the scenic Athirappilly waterfall in Thrissur, is the forest-homestead and the orchards belonging to the Ex-Service Men’s Society, formed in 1952, to rehabilitate and resettle World War II veterans. Here, dependents and family members of war veterans tend to their farms growing cashew, rubber, and jackfruit as the Chalakudy river passes by.

Second spring

Sourcing jackfruits from the farms and neighbouring villages, the Society processes it to make products such as jams, pickle, squash, jelly, halva, juice and flour, and markets it under the brand name Jacus Organica. “We are witnessing a second spring of jackfruit as more and more people are taking to it, leading to the revival of the rural economy,” Joy Pallaty, secretary, Ex-Service Men’s Co-operative Society, told VillageSquare.in. “Earlier a fruit would fetch around Rs 30 but now a grower can easily demand between Rs 100 to Rs 150 per fruit.”

Value-added jackfruit products developed at Santhigram. (Photo by Jackfruit Promotion Council)
Value-added jackfruit products developed at Santhigram. (Photo by Jackfruit Promotion Council)

Among the several jackfruit entrepreneurs is Subhash Koroth, chief executive officer of Kannur-based Artocarpus Foods. An engineer-turned-entrepreneur, Koroth spent months visiting jackfruit-processing units in Vietnam and started his Rs 13-million plant in Taliparamba in January 2015. He has so far developed various forms of processed jackfruit such as jackfruit pulp, jackfruit pieces, processed tender jackfruit, processed raw jackfruit, and jackfruit seed flour. Presently, the company processes about 800 tons of jackfruit every year and expects to touch 10,000 tons by 2018.

Among his clients are the Kerala Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, Joy Ice Creams, Olio Bakers, Lazza Ice Creams, and Jumbo Foods. It plans to export processed tender jackfruit in pouches to the Gulf nations, which have a sizeable number of Indian expatriate workers. Said Koroth, “We plan to promote the planting of jackfruit trees in households with an offer of buy-back guarantee.”

Now, imagine biryani, masala dosa, galouti kabab, kathi roll, panna cotta, and payasam from dehydrated jackfruit! That was the image change ushered in by James Jacob, formerly director (executive engagement) of Microsoft in India, and chief executive officer of Jackfruit 365. “Considered a poor man’s food, I put in my efforts to make it the rich man’s vegetable,” Mathew told VillageSquare.in.

Mathew freeze-dried the fruit, thus prolonging its availability, and went on to convince leading chefs of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai to make lip-smacking delicacies – enough for the national press, including the Discovery Channel, to sing praises about the fruit’s culinary avatars.

A flag-bearer of jackfruit, Jacob found that in many instances, jackfruit, when used instead of rice or wheat, reversed diabetes. A recent study by Sydney University’s Glycaemic Index Research Service mentions that the glycemic load and carbohydrate content is the lowest in unripe jackfruit compared to rice and wheat. Its high fibre content leads to low absorption of sugar, making it an ideal food for diabetics.

Jacob feels that it is the diabetics of Kerala who have made jackfruit acceptable as an alternative to wheat and rice, for the state holds the dubious distinction of being the country’s diabetic capital with an incidence rate of 138.2 per 1,000 person-years among those in the pre-diabetic stage, according to a study published in the International Journal of Diabetes in Developing Countries.

Increasing acceptance

Dwelling on how farmers could benefit from the increasing acceptance of the jackfruit, Sri Padre, editor, Adhike Patrike, who has an encyclopedic knowledge about the fruit, said, “Growers need to organise and have direct market linkage, like the farmers of Toobugere village in Karnataka have done with little bit of handholding by Bengaluru’s University of Agricultural Sciences, eliminating the role of traders.”

Asked how state governments could facilitate the cultivation and promotion of jackfruit, Padre told VillageSquare.in, “The need of the hour is to have Jackfruit Development Boards in states growing the fruit, like it is in the case of coconut and spices.”

This article first appeared on Village Square.

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