After a 14-hour flight and a decade spent trying to return to the country that unexpectedly stole my heart, I finally landed in New Delhi. Though it had been a full 10 years since I had first traveled to India, the beautiful chaos felt just as familiar as it once did.
My first stop wasn't an old stomping ground, or the home of an old friend. It was Indian Accent in The Manor hotel, the original outpost of a restaurant that's easily NYC's best opening of 2016. To try chef Manish Mehrotra's food in the motherland, in the country that grabbed me and never let go, was an opportunity that felt too good to be true.
What followed was an eight-course vegetarian tasting menu that featured unforgettable dishes like blue cheese naan—an amuse-bouche that's kicked off every meal since the New Delhi restaurant opened eight years ago (and is also served in NYC)—and the matter paneer, sliced so thin it tasted like a pasta noodle. But the dish whose memory I carried halfway around the world back home was the mighty jackfruit taco (see the recipe).
Meaty and shredded in texture, the jackfruit could have easily passed for pulled pork. But this tropical fruit, which is increasingly making waves as a meat substitute in the U.S., was better than any carnitas I had ever had. Add the array of spices—cumin, coriander, garam masala—and flavors—curry leaves, ginger and tamarind, to name a few—and you have a dish worth traveling around the world for.
Though vegetarian food bloggers in the U.S. have been experimenting with the fruit in recent years, it's been a common ingredient in Indian cooking for centuries. It's also on the menu at some of the country's trendiest restaurants: NYC's Mother of Pearl serves jackfruit and shiitake mushroom buns, and Portland, Oregon's Revelry makes a jackfruit curry pancake. At L.A.'s Night + Market, it's a mortar-pounded jackfruit salad.
As Mehrotra, who's getting ready to open another Indian Accent in London, explains, in India, jackfruit takes the place of meat so seamlessly that it's known as "the only non-vegetarian vegetable." Mehrotra grew up eating it in curries or with biryani, and Cardoz would eat the fruit straight from the trees in his grandparents' backyard.
"We would eat [it] ripe. We would also eat the seeds," Cardoz says. "In the height of the season, the seeds would be cooked in meat curries. With the excess, my grandmothers would make a jackfruit jam, as well as jackfruit chips."
Chef Manish Tyagi of San Francisco's August 1 Five grew up eating the entire fruit as well. "My mother makes it as a dry dish with onions and tomatoes, along with ground coriander, red chile powder and garlic. The jackfruit seeds are included to bring a nice crunch to the dish."
After all, the hallmark of good vegetarian cooking is being able to use an ingredient in many different ways—"fresh, braised and pickled"—Cardoz says, and these Indian chefs know that well, whether it comes to jackfruit or anything else.
As issues like food waste and meat alternatives become increasingly popular ("bleeding" vegetarian burgers, anyone?), versatile jackfruit is poised for a real breakthrough. While you may not have to fly around the world to get a taste of the possibilities anymore, if given the chance, you know where to go first.
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