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Jack Fruit: Food for Thought During a Pandemic

Updated on May 24, 2020
Deepa damodaran profile image

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

The Fruit of Abundance

This fruit, jackfruit, has been the food of the poor for many centuries in my region of South India, the small state of Kerala. If you visit Kerala, what you will find is a landscape very different from the rest of India. In all the other states of rural India, you will see villages where people live in clusters of housing surrounded by vast expanses of cultivated fields. However, in Kerala, you will find homesteads where each family has an isolated house right in the midst of their farmland. The only exception will be paddy fields, which are kept together under multiple owners for the sake of commonly practiced water management and seasonal sowing together. The lifestyle of homesteads has been evolved into its optimum productive value by the people of this state through centuries. One will find coconuts, areca palms, rubber, nutmeg, bananas, vegetables, spices such as pepper and cardamom, a diversity of fruit trees, and whatnot in a single homestead.

Poor People's Food

In the middle of all these agricultural biodiversities (not to mention the rich natural biodiversity also embedded in this agrarian ecosystem), you will find big jackfruit trees, at least one in every homestead. When a democratically elected government came to power in Kerala in 1957, as part of the dawn of freedom of India from the British colonial rule, this state was under the spell of poverty, high population growth rates, and scarcity of food grains and other food items. The only abundant food we had had was jackfruit and tapioca.

Reminder of a Feudal Past

Many a life had been saved from starvation in Kerala in those days just because we had this naturally growing jack fruit tree everywhere. Only a few were landowners then. The feudal land ownership system prevailed. The tenant farmers and agricultural laborers cultivated in the land owned by feudal landlords. After all the toil from day to dawn in the landlord’s fields, they would be paid in grain, that too far lower than what is required for their subsistence. In those days, many old people of our time would remember, the landless would go to the doorsteps of the landlords asking them permission to cut and take home, a jack fruit from the owners’ land. As the landlords were rich and had many other delicacies to eat, normally the jackfruits would be unused by them and rotting on the trees. The poor people would pluck jackfruit climbing the trees relieved by the thought that their children could eat to their stomachs full for the next one week or so.

Fruit with a False Stigma

Eventually, the progressive governments of Kerala implemented land reforms successfully and the feudal system is no more in place. However, the stigma of poverty associated with jackfruit stayed. The consequence has been that people abandoned this nutrition-rich fruit from their menu altogether, which is sad because again it is a very healthy fruit. Because there is no demand for this fruit, a homestead owner or farmer cannot sell this fruit as well. When the season of ripening of the jack fruit comes, rotten fruits lay abandoned in every homestead and every farmer’s field.

A Fruit Rediscovered

However, recently things have taken a better turn. There has been an ongoing discourse over the mainstream media about the health benefits of jack fruit and also the wastage of good food happening. In time, a few jackfruit value addition ventures have also sprung up. Still a few formal and informal studies and journalistic investigations showed that more than 50 percent of the jackfruit growing in Kerala goes to waste, unused.

Food for the World

During the COVID 19 pandemic, there has been a quick turn in the jack fruit narrative of Kerala. As Kerala is a state depending on other states for its food grains and vegetables, and in the aftermath of borders to the other states closing due to COVID 19, people have taken to eating jack fruit more. Maybe the people here foresee a famine coming, or maybe as we are staying at home and have more time in our hands to pluck out the edible parts from the sticky, messy and big jack fruits (which is a bit laborious for those who live a fast life; yes, we have all been living a fast life until COVID 19). We all are eating more jack fruits now.

I am aware of the fact that jack fruit has captured the imagination of the vegans of the western world as an alternative to meat when cooked before ripening, and also as a very tasty fruit. A few western media have called it the superfood of 2020. Jack fruit cakes, ice creams, fried chips made of unripe jackfruit, jack fruit cookies, jam, desserts, dried unripe jackfruit - the range of food items that can be made out of this humble fruit is just amazing. While this fruit can be a food of sustenance for Asia, in Europe, it can become a vegan gourmet food. For the whole world, this fruit provides a new and inexpensive opportunity of wholesome nutrition.

The comeback of jack fruit in Kerala for me is a curious example of how food habits change during a pandemic. By the way, I love jack fruit. It is a very tasty fruit with a tempting but socially unpleasant smell. I remember how some people used to smell in a crowded bus during jackfruit season and how others would eye them and each other in amusement bordering scorn. I miss those nostalgic childhood moments and am happy that jack fruit is making a comeback. The more important factor to consider is that food scarcity might become a reality again if this pandemic stretches over many months more without a vaccine in sight. Isn’t this time to probe the value addition potential of jack fruit in a more focused manner? This fruit is really big. It can also be used as a vegetable when raw, and almost all the parts of this fruit excluding its thorns are edible in one way or other. It can be a great source of nutrition for the entire society.

© 2020 Deepa

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