How jackfruit hit the jackpot in the plant-based space


The average Malaysian is used to eating jackfruit in its sweet, ripe form. — TOWFIQU BARBHUIYA/Unsplash

While jackfruit is ubiquitous in the South-East Asian region, the pungent fruit was relatively unknown in the Western part of the world until a few years ago. Then suddenly, it hit the jackpot when it was welcomed into the lucrative plant-based space, where it was heralded as a “superfood”.

Over the past few years, this humble fruit’s status has been elevated in so many ways. In 2016, jackfruit was awarded a “rising star” status by a Google report on the most searched for food items of the year, while in 2017, Pinterest declared it the top food trend of the year. Celebrated chef Garima Arora of the Michelin-starred Gaa, even said she thinks jackfruit will be the fruit to rule 2021.

And while Malaysia has always been late to the party (ingrained in that catchiest of local catchphrases “On the way”), this trend hasn’t gone unnoticed by intrepid local entrepreneurs looking to break the mould.

Indeed, 2021 seems to have been the decisive year for a number of individuals and entities, who have either jumped on the jackfruit bandwagon, launched new jackfruit products or are simply hoping to inspire more Malaysians to recognise the attributes and tremendous potential of the fruit.

Jackfruit 101

So why has jackfruit gained so much popularity over the years?

Jackfruits are extremely climate-resistant and fruit all year long, with a single tree often bearing up to 200 fruits a season! — AZAD AZAHARI/PexelsJackfruits are extremely climate-resistant and fruit all year long, with a single tree often bearing up to 200 fruits a season! — AZAD AZAHARI/Pexels

The huge fruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world and has been hailed for its many qualities, chief of which is its versatility.

While most Malaysians are familiar with jackfruit in its ripe stage, unripe jackfruit is actually what the plant-based market is after.

In its unripe form, jackfruit flesh acts as a blank canvas which takes on the flavours of other spices or flavouring agents added to it. Jackfruit also has a meaty texture, which lends itself well to mimicry and replication as a meat substitute. International plant-based brands like Singapore-based Karana for instance, have championed jackfruit’s uncanny ability to simulate the structural integrity of pulled pork.

It is this pulled pork quality that has been gaining traction globally, which in turn has meant jackfruit has quickly become a feature on restaurant menus in far-ranging places like London and Los Angeles.

One of the best qualities about jackfruit – something that has given it a distinct advantage in the plant-based scene is that it doesn’t really require processing in any form. Karana’s pulled pork for instance is made using jackfruit, salt and oil.

Unripe jackfruit has a neutral taste, a meat-like texture and an innate ability to soak up the flavours of whatever seasoning is added to it, which is why it has become so trendy in the plant-based space. — FilepicUnripe jackfruit has a neutral taste, a meat-like texture and an innate ability to soak up the flavours of whatever seasoning is added to it, which is why it has become so trendy in the plant-based space. — Filepic

This is in direct contrast with many other plant-based producers aiming to duplicate the flavours and texture of meat, whose products often go through a highly-complicated process called extrusion, which ultimately transforms raw plant-based ingredients into processed food.

“Jackfruit does not require such steps because it has an innate texture that lends itself to replacing animal meat with minimal processing or alteration— making it ideal for consumers looking to eat more whole foods,” says Mirte Gosker, the acting managing director of The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, an international non-profit that champions the plant-based space.

Then there are the associated health benefits of jackfruit, which are manifold. Jackfruit is low in calories, has a very high fibre count (which helps promote satiety) and is one of the rare fruits that is rich in B-complex vitamins.

Perhaps the most powerful feature of jackfruit is how climate-resistant it is. A jackfruit tree can bear up to 200 fruits a year, each one weighing up to 45kg. These trees – and their fruits – require little in the form of irrigation or pesticide, grow all-year-round and are noticeably drought-resistant, which makes the humble jackfruit an ideal crop of the future.

The pioneer

In Malaysia, jackfruit has long been a feature in traditional cooking among the Malay and Indian communities. Unripe jackfruit is used to make gulai nangka muda and jackfruit curries while the seeds of ripened fruits are sometimes deep-fried and turned into snacks.

But for the most part, the vast potential of jackfruit in the modern plant-based space has remained untapped. This is something that a sanguine bunch of individuals are hoping to change – soon.

Syafik (right) and Amirah believe that the best way to get Malaysians to embrace jackfruit-crafted plant-based meat is to introduce it to children, so that they will grow up to become avid consumers. — NANKASyafik (right) and Amirah believe that the best way to get Malaysians to embrace jackfruit-crafted plant-based meat is to introduce it to children, so that they will grow up to become avid consumers. — NANKA

Perhaps the biggest and most enterprising jackfruit-based entity in Malaysia right now is the brand Nanka, run by husband-and-wife team Ahmad Syafik Jaafar and Amirah Mohd Noh under the auspices of their food tech start-up Ira Noah.

Syafik and Amirah were inspired to start Nanka after the birth of their daughter eight years ago. As avid foodies, the two realised they had to start eating healthier now that they had a little one to tend to. That realisation soon sparked the idea of starting their own plant-based product.

The two stumbled on technology being developed by the International Islamic University Malaysia to convert jackfruit into plant-based meat. The university was looking to work with entrepreneurs interested in commercialising the technology, so Syafik acquired the technology – which at the time only incorporated a flexitarian option (70% jackfruit and 30% chicken/beef) but over the years, he kept working to produce a 100% plant-based jackfruit-focused burger patty.

Early this year, after over 150 failed formulations, Syafik and Amirah finally nailed the recipe for their 100% plant-based patties, made up of 70% jackfruit and 30% oyster mushrooms.

To make the patties, Syafik contemplated going down a more processed path, but ultimately felt it went against his healthy eating manifesto.

“Ninety-nine percent of plant-based players use an extrusion method. We talked to an extrusion facility in Singapore and they said ‘If you want to work with us, you have to turn all your ingredients into powders.’

“And I was like, ‘Huh, what is the point of putting work into all this healthy food when you have to change everything into a powder? Doesn’t that make it like processed food?’ So I thought ‘That’s not something I want to do’” he says.

Nanka’s 100% plant-based burger patty is made from 70% jackfruit and 30% oyster mushrooms with a red yeast rice in the formulation designed to emulate blood seeping out of meat. — NANKANanka’s 100% plant-based burger patty is made from 70% jackfruit and 30% oyster mushrooms with a red yeast rice in the formulation designed to emulate blood seeping out of meat. — NANKA

Instead, Nanka’s jackfruit patties are made the traditional way and are consequently best described as “minimally processed”. Syafik gets whole jackfruits from farmers in Lanchang, Pahang. Each jackfruit measures no more than 10cm and is delivered within 24 hours of being harvested. The jackfruit is then de-skinned, before being cut, washed with a proprietary liquid, boiled, blanched, mixed with oyster mushrooms and other components like flours, plant-based emulsifiers and oil to get the final product, which is hand-moulded into patties, before being vacuum packed.

Syafik also has a new iteration of the patties, which incorporates red yeast rice, a component that was added because it allows the patties to emit blood-like qualities similar to meat.

The burger patties are pretty texturally solid, with a relatively neutral taste underscored by a tinge of woody mushroom notes.

Other local players

While Nanka has certainly set the bar for innovation in terms of jackfruit in the plant-based space, others are also awakening to jackfruit’s potential – albeit on a smaller scale.

Medical doctor Dr Anusya Devi, for instance, is a practising vegetarian who has always loved cooking. During the pandemic, she realised how undervalued jackfruits were in the local scene, which is why she decided to try her hand at making jackfruit-based rendang.

“I wanted to flavour it naturally without any processing, so it took a lot of trial and error and my family and friends were my guinea pigs for a year!” she says, laughing.

Anusya says the hardest part of making jackfruit meals using unripe jackfruit is in cleaning the fruit, which has a sticky sap that is tough to remove. — ANUSYA DEVIAnusya says the hardest part of making jackfruit meals using unripe jackfruit is in cleaning the fruit, which has a sticky sap that is tough to remove. — ANUSYA DEVI

After a year of experimentation, Anusya recently launched her online brand Nangka by Chubbs, which at the moment focuses on her signature jackfruit rendang, a fiery, coconut-enhanced concoction that allows the jackfruit to truly absorb the flavours of the spices incorporated in it.

Anusya says the main challenge of making the rendang is in prepping the whole jackfruit itself, which is notorious for the sap that coats its insides.

“It’s really messy work and it takes one whole day to cut and clean up 10kg of fruits, because there is so much gum residue in each jackfruit. The gum has a laxative effect if not removed properly and some people are allergic to it, so you really must clean it well,” she says.

Even local restaurants are not immune to the jackfruit momentum. Klang Valley eatery PC Studio Café for instance, was approached by a jackfruit farmer to create plant-based jackfruit meat last year during the pandemic. The eatery eventually ended up creating a series of jackfruit nuggets after eight months of recipe-testing but has now shifted its focus to making hand-crafted jackfruit burger patties.

“Our patties are 100% jackfruit with isolated soy protein to boost protein content. We also use flour, onions, spring onions and coriander to just to give it freshness and flavour.

Chui says that the eatery is planning to expand its range of jackfruit-focused meals but will not be looking at replicating the taste or flavour of meat, as they want people to enjoy the meal as it is. — EDWARD CHUIChui says that the eatery is planning to expand its range of jackfruit-focused meals but will not be looking at replicating the taste or flavour of meat, as they want people to enjoy the meal as it is. — EDWARD CHUI

“I think the thing that makes our jackfruit patties different is that we are not setting out to imitate meat. Instead, our approach is about making a patty and incorporating it into a burger as a whole food,” says Edward Chui Yuen Chien, the eatery’s operations manager.

The future

There is a lot to look forward to for jackfruit-based creators in Malaysia. Nanka for instance, already has so much demand for its products (when we visited their facility, there was a distributor from Penang and an interested party from Sabah keen to get Nanka products in those states) that Syafik is investing in machinery that will take production of his burger patties up from 350 patties a day to 2,500 patties an hour!

The machinery is due to arrive soon and Syafik says this also means Nanka will soon be able to make jackfruit meat chunks, sausages and so much more!

“The demand is there. A number of local and international distributors are already waiting to put in orders with us, so once we have the machine, we can start distributing it more widely,” he says.

The enterprising Syafik will also be employing the services of a cloud kitchen operator that will soon be able to mass-produce Nanka’s ready-to-eat jackfruit meals.

“Right now we are working with a cloud kitchen called Food Lab, these guys are a social enterprise funded by Petronas and they are coming to our facility as a cloud kitchen provider. So we provide a space for them and they will be the ones making burgers, nasi lemak and rendang using our plant-based meat,” he says enthusiastically.

After a year of experimentation, Anusya finally launched her online brand Nangka by Chubbs, which features her signature jackfruit rendang but will soon expand to include jackfruit curry and barbecued jackfruit. — ANUSYA DEVIAfter a year of experimentation, Anusya finally launched her online brand Nangka by Chubbs, which features her signature jackfruit rendang but will soon expand to include jackfruit curry and barbecued jackfruit. — ANUSYA DEVI

For smaller players like Anusya, the goal is to expand her range of cooked jackfruit meals to cater to the growing consumer base in the plant-based landscape.

“I am working on two other products right now, so I am planning to do a barbecued jackfruit that will imitate pulled pork and also an Indian curry using jackfruit,” she says.

Once she expands her range, Anusya hopes to invest in a large machine that will reduce the back-breaking “brute force” job of cutting and cleaning the jackfruit down from one hour a fruit to one minute a fruit!

Chui meanwhile says the café has had enthusiastic response to its jackfruit patties and he and his team are already hard at work developing new products in their jackfruit range, including a jackfruit taco and an entire five-course menu revolving around jackfruit.

PC Studio Cafe is one of a nascent but growing number of cafes embracing jackfruit in meals. Pictured here is the cafe’s handmade jackfruit burger patty. — PC STUDIO CAFEPC Studio Cafe is one of a nascent but growing number of cafes embracing jackfruit in meals. Pictured here is the cafe’s handmade jackfruit burger patty. — PC STUDIO CAFE

Ultimately, although jackfruit is a fruit that is native to Malaysia, convincing a larger number of Malaysians to eat it in a guise they are unfamiliar with i.e. unripe jackfruit formulated into burger patties, pulled meat, sausages, etc is something that requires time and patience.

But this local motion is something that brands like Nanka are willing to invest in, in order to effect true change.

“What we are trying to do in Malaysia is to start small. Not start small in terms of introducing it bit by bit. We want to start small by targeting the kids’ market segment.

“So we are trying to get plant-based meat introduced in children’s diets (like introducing kids-sized burger patties) and build it from there.

“We took a leaf out of how Nestle introduced coffee in the tea-drinking society in Japan. They introduced it as coffee candies for kids and now the Japanese are one of the biggest coffee drinkers in the world.

“So that’s how we want to play it, but we have to have a lot of patience. But the way we see it, we have to be contributing to our local market. We have to be jaguh kampung (local advocates) before we look at other markets,” says Syafik determinedly.

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