It's infiltrated the canned section of the supermarket and slipped into tacos where there should be juicy pieces of carnitas. And though it's not the most cunning of ingredients with prickled tennis ball-hued skin and an overwhelming, durian-esque aroma, somehow, toddler-sized jackfruit has become the It ingredient.
"What is amazing is its versatility," Asha Gomez, the chef/owner of Spice to Table in Atlanta, Georgia, says. "Growing up, I remember eating it as a preserved jam, silky pudding and the raw version in seafood curries, since it absorbs flavors beautifully."
The rise of vegan cooking introduced the Southeast Asian staple to the general public, touted as a meat alternative, and inspired businesses like Upton's Naturals to package and sell the fresh stuff, according to Eater. However, it's nothing new; archaeological archives trace the fruit's cultivation in India to nearly 6,000 years ago, and the descendent of the breadfruit and mulberry families is still growing throughout tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia.
Smashed into Thai salads, preserved and sprinkled into curries in Bangladesh, and layered into Filipino halo-halo, the fruit's fibrous texture and sweet flesh is relied on in both savory and sweet dishes across the region. And now it's been given new life in the hands of chefs, especially in Maneet Chauhan's take on the American classic: jackfruit upside-down cake (see the recipe).
Chauhan, chef/owner of Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, Tennessee, and frequent Chopped judge, explains, "I have always thought caramel was the perfect complement to jackfruit, and the recipe really evolved from there."
She's not alone in her fascination: At Night + Market in L.A., Kris Yenbamroong smashes the flesh in a mortar and pestle with tomatoes, chiles and kaffir lime leaves for tum kanoon. "I love how good it is at being a blank canvas for taking on other flavors," Yenbamroong says. And at Indian Accent in New York City, chef Manish Mehrotra thinly cuts the fresh fruit to stuff into pillowy phulka and top chutney-dolloped papadi.
"I love jackfruit, because of its over-the-top fruitiness," Gregory Gourdet, the chef at Departure in Portland, Oregon, explains of his new guava mousse and jackfruit dessert. "It reminds me of bubble gum, and I am amazed that so much flavor can be produced naturally."
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Gourdet, who first stumbled upon the fruit as a young cook at NYC's Spice Market, may not be intimidated by jackfruit now, but that sharp, sticky shell and those fibrous membranes can be tricky to handle, so we've broken down how to crack open jackfruit (watch the video). And as for picking the right one, we consult the lifelong lovers of the fruit.
"When picking an unripe fruit, look for medium size with a nice green color with black specs, but for a ripe fruit, look for a sweet smell," Chauhan says.
Gourdet adds that the fruit should be heavy and golden. "The heaviness means the sugars are developed inside, and the fruit is ripe. Jackfruit continues to ripen after being picked, so leave it in a cool, dry place to ripen longer if need be."
Now about that smell.
"A ripe jackfruit will perfume an entire house with its distinct aroma, though it may be off-putting for some, if you don't quite understand the magic that lies beneath that prickly, green skin," Gomez says.
Trust us, the fruit is truly scent-sational.