A fruit which saved Sri Lankans from starvation
Posted on September 18th, 2020

By Zinara Rathnayake/BBC Courtesy NewsIn.Asia

An amazing variety of dishes can be made from Jackfruit which is also the heaviest fruit in the world

A fruit which saved Sri Lankans from starvation

Colombo, September 18: My mother grew up in a house of eight people in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, 100km north-east of Colombo. During the island’s severe droughts in the 1970s, most of her family’s humble, home-cooked meals consisted of boiled jackfruit served in a clay pot with a handful of freshly grated coconut. This simple, carb-rich meal fused with natural fats fuelled enough energy for the farmer-family to toil day and night in the dry plains.

Today, Starbucks serves jackfruit in wraps, while Pizza Hut offers it as a topping. The London Evening Standard called jackfruit the new kimchi, kale and cauliflower all rolled into one”. Pinterest named it the hottest food trend of 2017”, and more recently, The Guardian declared it a vegan sensation” thanks to its shredded meat texture.

But for my mother, her memories of growing up are studded with her eldest sister’s myriad jackfruit dishes. She’s particularly fond of kiri kos, a creamy jackfruit curry cooked in coconut milk. For kiri kos, my aunt plucked unripe jackfruits. Decades later in the early 2000s, it was the same tree that pleased my jackfruit cravings as a child. My mother recalls the days where I sat side by side with her as she removed and discarded the sticky white sap – koholla, as she called it in Sinhala – from ripe jackfruit, gobbling up each yellow, egg-like pod.

This humble fruit has been revered by Sri Lankans, as it has repeatedly saved the island from starvation

I loved the strong smell of the ripe fruit. People in the West often describe it as stinky”, but for me, other Sri Lankans and those living between many parts of India and the rainforests of Malaysia where the fruit naturally grows, this seasonal smell of ripe jackfruit brings immense joy.

Jackfruit is the world’s largest tree-borne fruit and it has a spiky skin that changes colour from green to yellow as it ripens. We use unripe jackfruit in our cooking and eat the ripe fruit raw, just as we eat a ripe mango or an apple. While the West is now touting it as an ethical meat alternative, for centuries, this humble fruit has been revered by Sri Lankans, as it has repeatedly saved the island from starvation.

Jackfruit is the world’s largest tree-borne fruit and mature trees produce 200 fruits each year (Credit: Utopia_88/Getty Images)

Across Sri Lanka, the jackfruit tree is known as bath gasa (rice tree”). Sri Lankans are rice eaters and pre-colonial Sri Lanka took pride in the country’s vast reservoirs and irrigation canals that harnessed monsoon rains, suppling water for paddy cultivation. But when British forces occupied the island starting in 1815 and subsequently stripped farmers of their land, they made it difficult for islanders to grow rice and instead expanded plantation crops such as tea, rubber and cinnamon for their export gains.

Sri Lankan jackfruit curry

In 1915, a member of Sri Lanka’s independence movement named Arthur V Dias, who had been sentenced to death by the British for his perceived role in an uprising, was freed from prison. Upon his release, Dias dedicated himself to helping Sri Lankans fight British rule and he realised that islanders would soon face food shortages as rice cultivation continued to decline. During his independence movement marches in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, he also saw the destruction of the island’s native jackfruit trees. When he learnt about the harrowing food shortages caused by World War One across Europe, Dias sought to establish food security and self-sufficiency throughout Sri Lanka.

One person can’t build a tank for paddy cultivation, but Arthur V Dias realised he could plant jackfruit trees, which [would] be the same as rice and eradicate starvation in Sri Lanka,” said Damith Amarasinghe, a history teacher at St Mary’s Maha Viduhala in the town of Uswetakeiyawa.

Dias came up with the ambitious goal of planting one million jackfruit trees across Sri Lanka. A planter by trade, Dias imported jackfruit seeds from Malaysia and gathered healthy seeds for germination. He visited villages to distribute seedlings and mailed seeds to far-flung corners in the country. Over time, Dias’ campaign paved the way to many successful jackfruit plantations across the country and earned him the heroic nickname of Kos Mama, or Uncle Jack.

Jackfruit was also known as the ‘starvation fruit’ in Sri Lanka

Today, Dias is considered a national hero, and like most Sri Lankan children, I first learned about Dias in a school textbook. His jackfruit campaign also helped establish food security in Sri Lanka during World War Two while nearby places such as Bengal and Vietnam experienced horrific famines in the 1940s. Amarasinghe explained that jackfruit was also known as the starvation fruit” in Sri Lanka during the 1970s, fleetingly transferring me to my mother’s memories of her childhood.

In the 1970s, a combination of inflation, droughts and a food shortage pushed Sri Lanka to the verge of collapse. A 1974 New York Times article quotes Sri Lanka’s then-prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike as saying the dire economic situation has almost squeezed the breath out of us – we are literally fighting to survive”.

But thanks to Dias’ campaign in the early 1900s, people had jackfruit growing in their backyards. Amarasinghe explained that those saplings – which had become tall, fruit-bearing trees long before the 1970s – are what got people through the crisis.

My grandmother hailed from a well-to-do family, but the government only allowed them to purchase 2kg of rice for a week. During these years, it’s jackfruit that kept them fed,” Amarasinghe told me.

Jackfruit has birthed a host of flavourful delicacies, and we welcome every bit of it into our diverse cuisine

Most recently, Amarasinghe says that jackfruit also became a staple during Sri Lanka’s months-long curfew to control Covid-19. During the initial weeks of the pandemic, many people in rural villages lost their incomes and it took weeks or even months for government welfare programmes to reach these remote hamlets. Without access to money or food, many villagers resorted to boiling jackfruit – just as my mother’s family did in the 1970s.

But jackfruit isn’t just a starvation fruit. The island’s deep love and gratitude for jackfruit has birthed a host of flavourful delicacies, and we welcome every bit of it into our diverse cuisine. Tender baby jackfruit without seeds go into a flavourful curry known as polos ambula. The curry’s labour-intensive process involves slow cooking the young fruit in a clay pot over an earthen fire for at least six hours. As the hours pass, the baby jackfruit slices simmer in a spice-infused coconut broth, soaking up the flavours of cloves, cardamom, dried tamarind and other aromats.

Kiri Kos curry, another jackfruit dish

Sri Lankans incorporate jackfruit into a wide variety of traditional dishes (Credit: Nathan Mahendra)

Ripe jackfruit pods are slimy and taste better with a sprinkle of salt. Seeds don’t go to waste in our homes; we eat them boiled. When combined with a ground mix of pan-fried rice and shredded coconut, boiled seeds make for a dark curry called kos ata kalu pol maluwa. My mother loves seeds as a snack, smoking them over a charcoal fire. My favourite is my father’s kos ata aggala, pan-roasted and ground jackfruit seeds blended with scraped coconut, sugar and a hint of pepper that are formed into balls for sublime taste and a subtle crunch. He makes them for evening tea when I’m home as a token of his love.

This jack-of-all-fruits’ versatility runs beyond the kitchen. It’s hard to think of another tree with so many uses,” said Diwani Welitharage, a pharmacist who cooks with locally sourced ingredients in her spare time. Welitharage cites jackfruit trees’ popularity as timber and the many uses of its leaves and flowers in Ayurvedic medicine to treat diabetes. Rich in carbs, jackfruit is also a good source of dietary fibre and vitamin C.

Ripe jackfruit

Welitharage uses jackfruit flour in muffins and cakes, and fries sliced jackfruit pods into chips laden with sugar. Similarly, many Hela Bojun restaurants – an initiative by the Ministry of Agriculture allowing women to cook traditional Sri Lankan cuisine and earn a living – prepare kos kottu. Kottu, a popular street food and hangover cure, is a greasy mix of leftover flatbread, sliced vegetables, eggs and meat. The female-run Hela Bojun stalls dish up a healthier vegan kottu using boiled jackfruit pods.

Jackfruit is often fried and made into crunchy chips as a snack (Credit: Credit: santhosh_varghese/Getty Images)

Jackfruit is often fried and made into crunchy chips as a snack (Credit: santhosh_varghese/Getty Images)

Though jackfruit is traditionally cooked at home, this humble fruit is increasingly found in many upscale restaurants across the country.

One day we had additional baby jackfruit, so I thought of preparing cutlets [a croquette-like snack] with it for guests who are vegetarian or vegan,” said chef Wasantha Ranasinghe at Upali’s by Nawaloka, a popular restaurant in Colombo that serves authentic local dishes. His tender jackfruit cutlets, served with a homemade spicy chilli sauce, soon became a hit among the epicureans frequenting the restaurant.

Curious to see how jackfruit fares at hipster cafes, I visited the chic Colombo restaurant Cafe Kumbuk, which plates tacos with fried baby jackfruit alongside mango salsa and guacamole. Living in Sri Lanka, I realised jackfruit is such a widely available, versatile fruit that can be cooked and enjoyed in so many ways,” said cafe founder Shana Dandeniya, who returned to Sri Lanka a few years ago after growing up in the UK. To me, it’s one of the greatest local superfoods we have access to, and we should champion it more.”

She is particularly fond of the pulled pork-like texture in cooked jackfruit and has plans to reintroduce a pulled jackfruit burger on the cafe’s menu following customer requests. It’s great when slow-cooked and pulled; I think it’s even better than pulled pork.”

2 Responses to “A fruit which saved Sri Lankans from starvation”

  1. Henry Says:

    Thank you Zinara for your comprehensive write up of the golden fruit. It took me back to the times in Sri Lanka when we so enjoyed the fruit in all its forms. In the backyard of our house in Dehiwala, we had an enormous jak tree, and we would share the fruit with our neighbors. Regrettable, we had to cut it down because it was at the very edge of the yard, and the roots were damaging the boundary wall. It broke my heart to watch the tree cutters bring it down.

    Here, in Arizona, I itried to plant some seeds that I brought in from Sri Lanka, but it didn’t work, the weather being much too dry for it to flourish.

    We do get Waraka sometimes at the Indian Grocery store in town, and of course canned polos from Thailand. Yes, it is catching on. We recently tasted polos sandwiches served at a local bakery. It was a far cry from the polos ambula we know, but ’twas better than nothing.
    The government must encourage the cultivation of this miracle tree. It might very well be a forex earner of the future in addition to supplementing the die of Sri Lankans-I must say deliciously. It might also be a good idea for some entrepreneur to start exporting canned polos, dehydrated jak and such other products.

  2. Nimal Says:

    I love this fruit so much I and my friends in Kandy knew where every tree was and we roam about on foot looking for the ripe one.We detect the ripe fruit when there are those flying insects fly around that particular fruit and my dear friend climb the tree with the consent of the owner and bring it down and share one half with the owner. We eat our the half and take some to our homes .That went for mangoes too.
    We grew over thousand plants in small plastic pots and gave it to the villages but they hardly planted then giving various usual excuses blaming the wild boar eating the young plants,etc.They wasted thousands of pepper and mango plants that I bought for them but during my subsequent numerous visits to my land at Dodangaslada,could see my plants for sale in many shops at Malsiripura,Dodangaslanda and many other small towns in the area.In one year I had to fly 7 times to solve the terrible problems in 1987-89 where there was an insurrection. Sadly I had to sell my land where I invested a lot of money.
    Colonials Planted the big Mara trees where they got down the seeds from Brazil.They planted along the main roads so that bare footed people could walk safely on the tarred road where the tarred road gets heated up by the hot sun.
    Government could do a similar project by planting the Jacktrees and mango trees along the newly constructed main roads that will help the people who need food to eat.
    Colonial made a special rule, a licence to stop the jack tree being cut down as it timber yellow in colour is durable. Government must encourage the plantation of the warka varity(not vala) in every home and in every state lands.
    This is is a very valuable plant where the leaves could be fed to the milking cows and goats,which we did in our estate at dodangaslanda.I hope the 50 trees that I planted along with the 50 Mango trees are bearing fruits now.Buyer was a very lucky man and I was told that he is praying for my good health for the productive land I left behind..

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