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How to cut a Jackfruit

2012 May 31
File this one away under "Information I'll never need"--unless--

You find yourself lifted from the life you knew in Big Town, U.S.A. and dropped into another life in Small Town, South India.


The Ritual: Jackfruit Cutting

You wanted this move; it was going to be a good thing, a better work-life balance for you, and the kids could revert from their 2nd generation Indian-American status to non-hyphenated Indian. [You, however, would retain the “India-returned” hyphenation for longer than you would like.] You wanted them to experience the place which was the source of their names, their mythologies, their art and music and chanting, their history, the funny sweet-spice smells in their homes that marked the transitions between their “insides” and “outsides.” You wanted them to know these things seamlessly, not just in Sunday school and Chinmaya mission lockdowns. You wanted them to feel utterly at home in their own (brown) skin.

You–you’d figure out the rest as you went along. You’d deal with the chaos, the garbage pile outside your front door, the blithely corrupt and impenetrable public service departments, the abysmal lack of “civic sense.” You’d learn to drive on the wrong left side of the road. You’d learn that your mother’s tongue was also your mother tongue. It would come back to you especially at moments when your urbane American politeness cracked and collapsed under the weight of the Indian work ethic–which, until you recovered your anthropological poise, you would call sheer inefficiency. Underneath would be the seed of your former self: the words, the emotions, the attachments, the dislikes. You’d figure out how to grow the seed in the red earth of your new home. If the sapling withered, you could leave–but it would not. You were born here. You would grow again here.

You would spend the first year trying to duplicate the life you left behind, especially when it came to food. Pastas. Croissants. Artisanal breads. Pesto. Tofu. Red sauce. Pad Thai sauce. You’d get down to basics. You’d source the ingredients you took for granted. You’d teach yourself to make what you couldn’t buy. You’d learn to find substitutes. But at the same time: you’d reassure yourself that suitcases from trips abroad would fill any gaps. You’d live your life in dollar-to-rupee conversion.

[You would also have to un-learn and re-learn the meanings of such things as love, compassion, ethics, responsibility, and care. But those are longer stories for other times.]

You’d spend your next years discovering curious new fruit, understanding the drama of their seasonality, allowing the seasons to dictate more, accepting the values of local currencies. Understanding that strawberries are cheapest only until about end February, that roselles are harvested in March, that lychees arrive in May, companions to mangoes, that other fruits (tree tomatoes, dragon fruit, peaches [curious in these parts], cherries) make cameo appearances all through each searing summer, trucked in from cooler places.


The Jackfruit

Jackfruit would arrive in May, too, the second of three in Tamil royalty: mukkanikal, ma-pala-vazhai [maampazham, palaapazham, vazhaipazham: mango, jackfruit, banana]. You’d know of these largest of tree-borne, prickly, forbidding fruits, native to Indian forests but cultivated in tropical climes, astonishingly the distant relatives of the mulberry, named after too-many-to-count bulbs that make up its interior [pala chulaikal iruppathaal: because so many bulbs are inside] so in Tamil it is the pala-pazham. From Malayalam the fruit gets its name: chakka[-pazham] becomes the jaca of Portugese became the jackof jack-fruit–though there are those who’d believe that it was named after Scottish botanist William Jack, in the employ of the East India Company in Bengal. In your house the joke was that the jackfruit was the one with the pokey jack-et–all posture and façade hiding treasures within.

No matter etymology and taxonomy, you’d loved jackfruit flesh, its special-ness emphasized by the elaborate ritual of cutting–mothers and aunts, fathers and uncles would disappear into the kitchen for what seemed like hours, in childhood reckonings of time. You’d want your children to enjoy them, too. But you’d not know how to cut them yourself, let alone select them; you’d not been taught; your memories were blurred; the rituals now alien. You’d find yourself, in a word, too American for jackfruit. So, how?

You’d make do in some distanciated-but-familiar way with the store-packaged jackfruit pieces, afraid to tackle so large and imposing a fruit yourself, needing grocer-mediation, but telling your children all the while that these are special fruit, royal fruit, tastier by far than the hyper-sugared, soaked and de-crisped canned stuff you’d tried from “Asian” aisles of US grocery stores, and better even than these mushy bits from plastic packets. You’d know you’d need to tackle the real thing some day. You’d know your fears would wait until you faced them squarely. You’d know you could only avoid your destiny for so long.

When a grandfather arrived one day, bearing a massive, forbidding, prickly jackfruit, bought at a throw-away price on the road into town, you’d be afraid, but secretly glad to be forced to the threshold you never dared approach alone. You would know the time had come to learn how to cut a jackfruit.


Making the first cuts

To understand the ritual of obtaining the prized flesh of this curious fruit. To endure this next rite of passage into a less hyphenated state of Indianness. To unravel one more layer of the experience of being here. To think of the jackfruit as a metaphor for the return: get through the prickly-thick jacket, get through the relentlessly sticky ooze that releases with the first plunges, cut it all out and throw it away so that you can spend the next length of your life pulling apart crisp fleshy rich yellow bulbs overflowing with sweetness–keeping yourself from eating it all in a go, lest you get tummy-aches as the old wives predict.

Watch, as grandfather sits with driver to tackle this curious fruit.


The knife cuts through the jacket’s perfect geometry

Newspaper spread, oil on hand, cross-legged on the floor. The largeness of the fruit demands muscle: it is heavy work, cutting through a persistently sticky layer to get at the shiny bulbous segments within. The fruit’s scent, some say, is reminiscent of rotting onions, though the description does not at all correspond with what you smell: a rich whiff of sweetness, even from slightly unripe fruit [which is the way they should be picked and purchased].

They oil the knife. They cut a gash in the fruit, lengthwise, stalk to bottom. Turn the fruit over, cut a second gash on the opposite side. Join the two cuts on the bottom of the fruit. From the top, dig the knife in to split the fruit’s central sternum. Then pry the fruit’s two halves apart. The inside is yellow, beautifully arranged bulbs along the halved sternum. Cut again into each halved sternum to quarter the fruit, and to make it easier to cut out the sternum itself–for with it goes all the relentlessly sticky ooze.


Split into two halves


So many bulbs packaged in waxy fronds along the central sternum


The sternum releases a relentlessly sticky ooze: as if the next line of defense after the prickly jacket

Once that’s out, work with a small knife to cut out the individual bulbs, loosening them from the many fronds that hold them in place. Split each bulb,  pushing out the slippery seed within [these are saved to roast into a curry or boil into a dal]. The flesh is polished leather, smooth, shiny, thick. And so beautiful.

Be prepared to share the fruit. There will be much of it, and many more of the seeds, waiting, waiting to be curried. The jackfruit flesh can be jammed, when overripe. Very underripe fruit can be cooked into mock-meat curries, such is the texture of the flesh. But somewhere in between always works best: not mushy, not green, but a pale, tending-to-golden yellow and sweet enough to keep you wondering who could get away with adding quite this much sugar to anything without overwhelming its flavor.


Quartering the jackfruit; slicing out the sternum


The treasures within, packaged in waxy fronds


pala chulaikal iruppathaal: because so many bulbs are inside


Saving the seeds


Pale yellow, tending-to-gold


Packaging materials: silky-waxy fronds and a thick, protective jack-et

Deepa's bucket list:
5. By hook or crook, see Angkor Wat.
6. Learn to cut a Jackfruit
7. Learn to play the Uke.

How to cut a jackfruit graphic

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28 Responses Post a comment
  1. June 2, 2012

    I’d know that head anywhere… that has to be Appa’s head, isn’t it? Please tell me that it’s Appa’s head! (That first picture, I mean) Oh, dear jackfruit.

    • June 3, 2012

      Not “Appa” but Grandfather. It be grandfather head, sistah :o)

      • June 3, 2012

        Oh. That Papi’s head makes me smile. And I do love the geometry of the jackfruit too. Such a wonder! Thank you for the pictures.

  2. Denise permalink
    June 3, 2012

    Beautifully written, which is to be expected. Ethno.Graphic. Food INDEED!!!

  3. June 4, 2012

    I’m loving the poster with the detailing- especially the parachute oil! Very well written as well! 🙂

  4. Iryna permalink
    June 4, 2012

    the perfect geometry and the sharpness of durian (as it’s known in my reality) lends some thoughts about the forbidden-ness of the fruit… The legendary smell of it is the only thing that keeps me from trying it, mainly because of the rest of the family’s protests. 🙂 How was it for your boys? I am pretty sure they enjoyed the sweetness, but what about the smell? Was it prohibitively offensive or sweet for them? (or is it one of the identity markers for one’s Americanness/ Indianness – to be able to appreciate the smell? :-))

    And what about the oil for the knives? It’s the first time ever I hear about oiling a knife… And what “parachute oil” is? Do I see The Cleaver in the pictures? It’s like a puzzle post – everyone is recognizing something in the pictures – heads, knives, oils…

  5. June 4, 2012

    Denise, Soroshi: thanks for those sweet-as-jackfruit words : )

    Iryna: The durian and the jackfruit are not one and the same, in fact are quite distinct, though they share a good deal in appearance (prickly skin, yellow insides, tree-borne fruit, Asian in origin, association with smell etc.). But the durian (as I understand) is pricklier by far than the jackfruit, and drier, so much so that its “skin” is often called a “husk.” The durian is also famously smelly, whereas the jackfruit smell is something some people really don’t mind at all and others find strong. The durian is also not native to India, but found further east from here; quite the opposite with the jackfruit, whose value is cultural in more ways than one. [The veena instrument, for example, is made from jackwood.]

    All told, now you have the rationale to perish the hesitation, and try the jackfruit! But make sure what you’re buying is jackfruit and not durian — all my North American years I never tried what I’d find in the “Asian” stores because they looked a lot more like durian and a lot less like jackfruit.

    Very interesting to think of this as a puzzle piece that has bits that everyone recognizes in different ways! I’d not thought of that. Parachute oil is just a local brand of coconut oil — I’m enjoying drawing recognizable ingredients, as you’ll have seen from the beignets post, too.

    As for acculturation and the enjoyment of previously intolerable smells: indeed, but thankfully it’s a process we never had to go through with jackfruit, which we just liked, just the way it is, on our first bites : )

  6. Iryna permalink
    June 5, 2012

    Oh my, what an embarrassment… Thank you for educating me – I was convinced those were the different names of the same thing. What else one might expect relying on the labels in the Asian groceries? 🙂 Any ideas where I might find a jackfruit in the US? I really want to try one now!
    But what’s the deal with oiling the knives with the coconut oil? Before I get another round of public embarrassment…

    • June 6, 2012

      Iryna: no need to feel embarrassed at all. After all, I’ve had to educate myself on the distinction between durian and jackfruit, too, so similar are they in so many ways. The biggest clue to their distinction for me was the fact that the Indian stores in the US never carried the fruit that was being sold at other “Asian” grocers. [India is not classed as part of “asia,” after all, right? conversation for another time!] After that, I just asked, looked things up etc. … Where to find a jackfruit in the US? I want to say, tongue in cheek, or “come to Pondicherry,” though cravings may not wait that long, but more seriously: you could try the Indian grocers. Or even Mexican/South American grocers; jackfruit is widely consumed in those regions also, I believe. Oiling knives: this is because the central sternum of the jackfruit (not the bulbs themselves) secretes this gooey ooze that’s very difficult to clean. So you oil your tools and then it slides right off. Mostly anyway : )

      • Iryna permalink
        June 6, 2012

        Thanks, m’dear. I’ll have a tour of local Indian stores, luckily there are a lot of them in our area. And thank you for the oiling tip – that’s essential!

  7. Kristi permalink
    June 6, 2012

    I must confess that I love reading your blog. It is always so beautifully written and thought provoking. It reminds me of your fabulous classes – you will always be my teacher! – and it makes me feel closer to you despite the thousands of miles apart.

    With greatest affection,

    • June 7, 2012

      Kristi, what a lovely note to wake up to. So glad you find resonances with Pâticheri. But I’d also love if you’d turn tables and become my teacher, too. Argue, contradict, and talk back! I _know_ I’d be interested and have lots to learn, too : )

  8. June 11, 2012

    Each sentence strikes a chord, each paragraph plays a familiar symphony – one I’ve experienced and continue to experience, the joys of the reluctant repat (in my case!). Thank you for a thoughtful and deeply moving piece – your words capture all the struggles and victories of the homecoming, perfect for the ‘Welcome Stranger’. And now I have to try some jackfruit.

  9. Oyinna permalink
    June 26, 2012

    I love too many things about your post “How to cut a Jackfruit!” I love how you started off writing in second person in the first few paragraphs. I tried it before for an assignment and found that it’s not an easy technique to write in.

    The post is engaging and enlightening. I buy canned jackfruits all the time but I’ve never seen it being processed. I see the unripened fruit in the store too (in cans of course) and have often wondered what it’s used for. Now I know…:-). I think it’s very cool that the seeds are saved and used for other dishes too. Jackfruit is a very useful fruit indeed! Reminds me of the palm trees in my father’s village.

    • July 31, 2012

      Say more Oyinna, about the palm trees? Are they also used in full measure and multiple ways?

  10. August 11, 2012

    Deepa, just wandered into you space. Lovely!
    This brought back so many memories.

    The Durian is found in parts of South India. It is known as the Ayani Pilavu/Plavu vis-a-vis the Jackfruit tree/Pilavu. The wood of the Durian is also treasured.

    Plus you have the ubiquitous Malayalee frozen-goods which catered to the Middle-eastern expatriates; so now you can source chakka-kuru/jackfruit seeds, and raw jackfruit pods too. 🙂

    • August 11, 2012

      Shri, How lovely that you wandered by! And with interesting information, too–I’d no idea the Durian is also found here (how is the fruit used and regarded, I wonder? any relation that way to the respect and love given to the jackfruit?). And that Malayalee frozen foods circulate much as migrants from Kerala do, of course! Though I wonder if I’ll find much more than Kerala messes in Pondicherry. Stopped in at your blog, too; what a treasure-trove of Kerala recipes! I’m bookmarking, definitely. I hope you’ll wander by again sometime and stay in touch.

      • August 24, 2012

        I did not realize how much I missed a space like you have here Deepa! 🙂

        The fruit is more sticky and the texture is softer and runnier and the smell strong. I remember the one at my grandparents was hard to get because it would break. Many of us might not have tasted it too. The wood was definitely treasured and went in to making furniture.
        I don’t think we have it anymore- the march of the rubber trees from the South, put paid to that!

        We still use the jackfruit gum that oozes out from the midsection and is wrapped around a wooden stick. It dries but can be melted with heat. It is primarily used to seal the Chinese pickle jars.

        Just planning to savour your posts ! 🙂

        • August 28, 2012

          Shri: that’s great information about the Durian, and a sadly predictable story of the relentless forward march of rubber. As for the jackfruit gum, I had no idea, and am tempted to search it out–I guess this is another tree almost like the banana, where so many parts of it get used? And so glad you find Pâticheri’s space a good one to return to; would love for you to contribute more and come back often!

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