KITCHEN BACKSTORIES: The ‘Jack’-Fruit Of All Trades
From dessert to dye, it’s the ‘Jack’-fruit of all trades.
As a child growing up in New Zealand, I would always look forward to the days when we would host dinners for our Thai family friends. On these occasions, I would invariably be sent to the pantry to retrieve a coveted can of jackfruit, or khanun, and be in charge of releasing the soft, yellow, fleshy ear-shaped fruits from their syrupy metal prisons. As we prepared them into slivers to add to our colourful, coconut-milk-based iced desserts—I would delight in being able to nibble on a few pieces, relishing in each the explosion of sweet, fragrant fruitiness on my taste buds: tropical notes of sweet mango, banana, and pineapple.
It was only upon moving to live in Thailand some years later, however, that I realised my jackfruit treats did not simply come from a can. Instead, they were borne from something rather more sinister-looking: a monstrous, yellow-green, mutant lovechild of a fig and a mulberry—that would cause quite the injury if it decided to dislodge in the midst of one’s entranced admiration.
The jackfruit is the largest tree-born fruit in the world, weighing up to 45 kilograms—and measuring up to 90cm x 50cm. Believed to be indigenous to the rainforests of the Western Ghats mountain range of India, jackfruits spread early on to other parts of India and Southeast Asia. In Thailand, the earliest historical record of jackfruit is found in King Ramkhamhaeng’s black stele, inscribed over 700 years ago in Sukhothai, in 1292.
Whilst the most common encounter you might have with jackfruit in Thailand today might be with the mounds of freshly extricated, ripe yellow segments on a Silom Road fruit cart—or in an iced dessert—the small unripe fruits can also be used in savoury stews and curried foods, such as gaeng kanun, or young jackfruit curry—a spicy traditional northern Thai dish.
Jackfruit is also said to have medicinal properties, being considered beneficial to stimulating digestion and increasing appetite; along with the decoction of its root, it is also traditionally used to calm diarrhoea. The seeds can also be boiled or roasted. Said to be a tonic for general health and invigoration of energy, they are especially helpful in promoting convalescence, boosting immunity and remedying chronic fatigue or illness.
Moreover, as if its culinary and medicinal uses were not enough—jackfruit also plays a role in holy life. The heartwood of the jackfruit tree is traditionally used by the forest monks of rural Northeastern Thailand to dye their robes: woodchips are boiled in water, creating a distinctive, rich, brown dye called kaen khanun. The dye is believed to have special qualities, such that robes rarely need to be washed; they are simply reboiled in jackfruit dye once a week and left to dry in the sun. The medicinal properties in the dye are, moreover, trusted by monks to offer immunity to fungal infections, skin disorders and body odour.
From dessert to dye, anti-diarrheal to antiperspirant, I, for one, will be looking at this ‘Jack’-fruit of all trades in a new light going forward.