large jaca (jackfruit) on tree

Photo © Michael Sommers.

This January marks 13 years that I’ve been living in Brazil. During that time, I’ve discovered a lot of native fruits that I’d never laid eyes upon, let alone sunk my teeth into. I’ve also rediscovered some fruits. One of my biggest (literally) and most recent rediscoveries was the jaca (jackfruit).

The largest edible fruit known to humankind – (jacas have been known to grow up to 3 feet in length and weigh over 80 pounds) – a jaca is also one of the weirdest looking fruits you might come across. The amorphous green sacs, covered with an outbreak of punky spikes, are simultaneously prehistoric, surreal, and a little grotesque (a friend of mine, Barbosa, aptly described a few dozen jacas dangling from a massive jaqueira (jaca tree) as a cluster of vegetal “tumors”).

Admittedly, the sheer aesthetic freakiness of the jaca didn’t predispose me toward it even though I’ve had plenty of opportunities to familiarize myself with the fruit.

Admittedly, the sheer aesthetic freakiness of the jaca didn’t predispose me toward it even though I’ve had plenty of opportunities to familiarize myself with the fruit. During Brazil’s jaca season (which is now), the streets of my adopted hometown of Salvador are filled with wheelbarrows, makeshift kiosks, and fruit stands hawking carefully assembled pyramids of jackfruit. (Jacas are so monstrous in size – and ripen with such speed – that only a big family can devour a whole one; as such, vendors have machetes handy and will slice and dice sections according to customers’ whims).

Visuals aside, however, another characteristic that failed to endear me to this fruit is its smell; a pungent, almost overly floral reek, which when exaggerated by heat and overripeness, activates my gag reflex. In fact, one of the main reasons I was initially loathe to sample the sweet, starchy, sections of pale yellow fruit was its odor.

Although many Brazilians love jaca as is, like many other fruits, it often finds its way into sorvetes (ice cream) and doces (i.e. preserved jaca). In fact, the first time I was persuaded to try doce de jaca, I was surprised to discover that I found the firm, unscented fruit, marinated in clove-spiked sugar syrup, quite to my liking.

However, it wasn’t until my recent trip to the Chapada Diamantina that I actually fell in love with jacas. I really couldn’t help but do so because – like chestnut trees in Paris and maple trees in Toronto – jaqueiras were everywhere in the village of Capão. Not only did their vast canopy of branches cast shade, but their fruits were a basic ingredient in much of the local cuisine – with a twist.

Instead of served in its sweet, ripened state, much of the jaca delicacies that I encountered were savory ones, made with jaca verde (unripe, or “green.” jaca). They were also inevitably made using jaca dura (hard jaca), the crème-de-la-crème of jackfruit as opposed to jaca mole (soft jaca) or jaca manteiga (butter jaca), two species variations that are considered to be somewhat “inferior” by the locals.

Indeed, I’ll never forget visiting a tiny village called Conceição dos Gatos where we sat around talking to Maninho, owner of the town’s only bar, and his wife, who pointed out that the enormous remains of a giant jaqueira next to us that had been struck by lightning: “Thank God it bore jaca mole instead of jaca dura, or it would have been a real tragedy,” commented Maninho.

Maninho’s wife told me about how she prepared jaca dura that she then sold to customers in Capão by taking the fruit into the river and cutting it open to rinse out the milky sap before dicing it finely so it could be used in a variety of dishes – including as a substitute for ground beef.

Well, to date, nobody has invented the jacaburger. But while I was in Capão I did indulge in pizza topped with jaca, deep fried, crunchy pastéis (turnovers) filled with jaca, coxinhas (“drumsticks”; actually a savory pastry, shaped like a drumstick), in which the usual filling of shredded chicken was substituted with diced jaca, and pão de jaca (jaca bread).

They were all, without exception, so delicious that I experienced a certain degree of guilt when I considered that I had spent the last 12 years harboring such a lowly opinion of this strange fruit.