One bite and I was immediately hooked on the Jackknife sandwich at Westport’s Char Bar Smoked Meats & Amusements: Melted provolone, avocado slices and fried jalapeño slivers filled the soft egg bun. But what tasted like pulled pork was anything but.
Instead, the restaurant has found a delicious way to use jackfruit that would fool any carnivore who hasn’t read the menu description. Corporate chef Michael Peterson, Jeremy Tawney (Char Bar’s “smoke whisperer”) and Mark Kelpe, managing partner for Beer KC Restaurants, created the sandwich.
And their customers are big fans.
“What I love about jackfruit is that when it’s well (prepared), it has the texture of pulled pork or pulled chicken,” Kelpe says. “The first time I had it was in a jackfruit Reuben at Füd. But I don’t think anyone else is smoking jackfruit to create the first vegan barbecue. It has a wonderful texture (but) it doesn’t have a pronounced flavor.”
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Two of Char Bar’s sister restaurants offer jackfruit dishes, too. McCoy’s Public House serves Jackfruit Tacos (spiced jackfruit, radish slaw, avocado, vegan Sriracha crema, vegan cheese and handmade tortillas, with butternut squash-corn salad); while Beer Kitchen offers Jackfruit Tamales, a tasty vegan combo of blue corn masa, two salsas, heirloom Anasazi beans and beer-battered avocado.
After encountering jackfruit while living in Los Angeles, chef Heidi VanPelt-Belle debuted the Jack Reuben at Füd in Kansas City for St. Patrick’s Day 2010. Customers who had never previously heard of jackfruit wrote emails and Facebook posts requesting more of it. Füd’s Jack BBQ sandwich received a nod from The New York Times in 2012.
Today VanPelt-Belle is widely credited as the innovator of jackfruit in Kansas City. The restaurant’s homepage references the fruit, and another page describes ‘Our History With Jack Fruit.’ The vegan restaurant now offers additional dishes incorporating jackfruit, including a Taquito Trio and a Curried Jack sandwich using Jack Chkn and the Tune-Rahh, in which jackfruit mimics tuna.
Jackfruit dishes are big sellers at Füd, behind only the restaurant’s popular mac and cheese and nachos, VanPelt-Belle says. “And the Buffalo Jack wing substitute is flying out.”
So what the heck is jackfruit?
When a “new” food reaches “Rising Star” status on Google’s Annual Food Trends Report in 2016, it’s definitely worth taking a closer look.
Related to breadfruit, figs and mulberries, jackfruit is the world’s largest fruit. Blunt, thorn-like projections cover each enormous oval jackfruit, which can grow to a length of 3 feet and a weight of 80 pounds. The outer “spines” become soft as the fruit ripens. Jackfruit trees can grow as tall as 60 feet and yield up to 3 tons of fruit annually. When its exterior turns yellow, jackfruit is ready for picking.
The national fruit of Bangladesh is sustainable, organic and GMO-free. India produces approximately 70 percent of the world’s crop. It also grows in most of Southeast Asia, Australia and Brazil, and some trees have even grown well in Florida and San Diego.
With an aroma that is sometimes described as reminiscent of rotting onions, this fruit may be off-putting for some people. But others find jackfruit’s banana-like, edible flesh delicious, particularly when eating the relatively small, unripe and crunchy variety. In most locales, the fruit is eaten raw or cooked with rice.
Throughout the world, jackfruit stars in curries, soups, stews and even desserts. Bonus: Roasted jackfruit seeds taste like chestnuts. Australians use the fruit to make gravy for lamb.
“It’s way more sustainable than meat,” VanPelt-Belle says. “It’s not hybridized, and it’s super-filling.”
Kansas City-based Johnna Perry has traveled widely and says no other city she has been to offers as many jackfruit options. As a certified nutritional education trainer who eats a plant-based diet, the living foods chef and gluten-free baker has seen it used in sweet rather than savory applications, such as in pudding made with coconut milk or caramelized as you would bananas.
Fresh jackfruit is so sticky that it can actually be used as glue. Most people oil their hands to deal with the fruit’s natural stickiness when they cut and prepare the flesh. But washing up afterward can still be a chore, which is why packaged jackfruit has such appeal.
“We get it canned, in water, with no salt and no preservatives,” VanPelt-Belle says.
Kelpe purchased canned jackfruit until he became aware of the Jackfruit Company, a Boston-based company that sells ethically sourced jackfruit harvested by 350 farming families.
Kelpe began offering vegan jackfruit tamales at Beer Kitchen four years ago and started working with the Jackfruit Company about two years ago. “We buy jackfruit by the pallet and disperse it to our restaurants,” he says, adding that it’s fresher than that sold in Asian markets.
“We opened Char Bar and we had smoked jackfruit available by the pound. But after about the first nine months, I wanted to highlight it,” he says.
Annie Ryu established Global Village Fruit in 2011 and the Jackfruit Company four years later. While working with her brother in India to implement their maternal and child health care program, Ryu noticed enormous jackfruits sitting on the pavement and soon realized it was an underutilized crop that farming families could grow quickly with minimal labor.
Today, the Jackfruit Company is the world’s largest supplier of “naked” fruit packaged for food service operations, as well as a line of meatless jackfruit products in barbecue, Tex-Mex, teriyaki and curry flavors available online or in Sprouts and Whole Foods markets.
“It’s too incredible not to try,” Ryu says. “A fruit with satisfying meaty texture and flavor — and it might just become your new favorite. When ripe, it’s a deliciously sweet fruit with a flavor rumored to have inspired Juicy Fruit gum, and great for smoothies, desserts or on its own.”
Beyond flavor, the fruit appeals to eco-conscious consumers.
“Imagine replacing the environmental damage of meats with the positive impacts of a fruit that grows abundantly without any maintenance and provides substantial, reliable income to hundreds of farming families,” Ryu says. Buying jackfruit is “part of transforming the food system and the planet for the better.”
High in fiber and natural simple sugars, jackfruit is a good energy source with easily digestible, low-calorie flesh. It has zero cholesterol or saturated fat and is rich in flavonoids. It’s a good source of vitamin C and is also rich in B-complex vitamins, potassium, magnesium, manganese and iron.
Whether you enjoy jackfruit in its sweet, raw state or create a savory dish that showcases its versatile texture, jackfruit offers potential as a meat substitute whose growth and harvest have minimal impact on the environment.
“As a society, I do think the future is less and less meat, so chefs are going to find delicious, healthy replacements for some of the slightly ‘naughty’ foods that we’ve come to love so much,” Kelpe says.
Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance food and travel writer who lives in Overland Park.
Ripe vs. unripe jackfruit
Local chain grocery stores sometimes carry jackfruit, and you can even buy it on Amazon. However, most whole, fresh jackfruits sold in grocery stores and Middle Eastern or Asian markets are too ripe and sweet to work as a savory meat substitute.
If you like the idea of substituting jackfruit for meat, then you’ll want to use unripe, young jackfruit, which has a good “chew” character. Young jackfruit can be shredded, sliced or formed into meat shapes. You can warm jackfruit, if desired; otherwise it’s fine fresh out of the can or freezer.
Ripened jackfruit is great for sweet recipes, when the skin turns yellow in color and the fruit becomes very fragrant. If you’re following a recipe, be sure you have the right amount of jackfruit on hand. We’ve seen 14-ounce cans, 10-ounce packages in the grocery refrigerator section and 6-ounce frozen packages.
A 20-ounce can costs about $1.25 at Asian supermarkets.
Lisa Waterman Gray, Special to The Star
Kansas City’s own jackfruit company
After Stephanie Shelton and Shawn Mock transitioned to a plant-based diet in spring 2010, their taste for meaty flavors and textures wasn’t adequately satisfied by existing food products, which often included gluten. Frustrated with these options, the couple began to experiment with jackfruit recipes.
They were selling and showing art at First Fridays in the Crossroads Arts District, “and everybody was drinking wine and asking where to go eat but nobody was buying, so we decided to try selling jackfruit tamales,” Shelton says. “I did some research and starting making prototypes in time for the next First Friday.”
The tamales caught on like wildfire.
Little did Shelton and Mock know their jack tamales would signal the start of a thriving company and their garage would become a state-inspected certified kitchen. Today Mean Vegan Products sells multiple products at more than 35 Kansas City and Lawrence locations, including Whole Foods, Natural Grocers and many Hy-Vee stores, as well as delis and restaurants.
“I was a faux decorative painter and am still a musician,” Shelton says. “He’s a construction contractor who built our kitchen and made the best system to get (our products) together as quick as possible.”
The product line now includes the original Saucy Jackfruit Tamales or Pulled Jackfruit Tamales 6-Packs, as well as Kansas City Jack Bar-B-Q, Smoky, Herbed Chick-Un, Funguy Jerky-Smoky & Spicy, and Baconated Coconut.
“Our tamales are among one of the best-selling items in frozen food sections,” Shelton says. “A lot of people really like the barbecue, but it’s a little more savory (than sweet).”
The young company recently signed a partner agreement with a Chicago manufacturer, La Guadalupana, too. “They are known for their masa, made from corn to tamale coating within 24 hours,” Shelton says. “But I (did have) to transition the recipe from canned to using fresh jackfruit.”
Seeing Mean Vegan grow is enormously satisfying, Shelton says. “It’s taken on a life of its own, and we’ve basically chased along behind.”
Lisa Waterman Gray
BBQ Jackfruit, Kale and Quinoa Bowl
This hearty dish features a balanced mix of vegetables, beans and grains and can be served cold or hot.
Makes 2 to 4 servings
1/2 cup quinoa
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
6 cups chopped kale
1/4 cup water
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/2 cup corn kernels
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Salt to taste
1 (10-ounce) package BBQ Jackfruit (a tomato-based blend of sweet and tangy, with smoky mesquite, available in ready-to-use pouches at Whole Foods and Sprouts), heated to desired temperature
Cook quinoa according to package directions. Put cooked quinoa in a large bowl and set aside.
In a pan or skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped kale and stir, coating the kale with olive oil. Add a pinch of salt and continue stirring until the kale begins to wilt. Add 1/4 cup of water to the kale, lower the heat and let simmer until the kale is tender and the water has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
When the kale is tender, add to the bowl containing the quinoa. Add the black beans, red onion, red bell pepper and corn to the bowl and mix until everything is evenly distributed. Add remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the apple cider vinegar and stir well. Add salt to taste.
To serve, top the kale and quinoa mixture with the desired amount of BBQ Jackfruit.
Per serving, based on 2: 722 calories (26 percent from fat), 22 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 110 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams protein, 726 milligrams sodium, 29 grams dietary fiber.
Source: The Jackfruit Company, thejackfruitcompany.com/bbq-jackfruit-kale-quinoa-bowl.
Jackfruit “Crab” Cakes
Makes 6 servings
1 (20-ounce) can young, green, unripened jackfruit (available in Asian markets)
1 cup cauliflower florets
3 tablespoons vegan mayonnaise, or Cashew Sriracha Cream if you like spice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons small diced red bell pepper
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
2 tablespoons coconut flour, or more to create the desired consistency
2 tablespoons olive or avocado oil
Additional Sriracha Cashew Cream, for garnish (optional)
Lemon slices, for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Drain and rinse jackfruit. Place in a small saucepan, cover with water. Over medium heat, bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes at a slow boil, until jackfruit is fork tender. Drain and allow to cool.
Steam or boil the cauliflower florets until they are tender; drain and allow to cool.
Using a fork, gently mash the cauliflower florets. You don’t want this to be a smooth puree, leave a few pieces about the size of a pea or so.
Chop the jackfruit until it is flaky with just a few bite-sized chunks left intact and place in a large mixing bowl. Add 3 tablespoons vegan mayo, parsley, red pepper, green onions, sea salt and Old Bay seasoning. Stir to combine. Gently fold in 2 tablespoons coconut flour and form the mixture into cakes/patties, adding more coconut flour as necessary to hold together.
In a large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Using a large scoop (a #12 scoop is roughly 1/3 of a cup), scoop out the mixture into your hands, press into a patty about 3 inches in diameter. Repeat the process until you have 6 crabby patties/crab cakes.
Place the jackfruit crab cakes into the skillet. Over medium heat, cook about 3 minutes on each side until they are nicely browned.
Remove to the parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes. Serve with a slice of lemon and Cashew Sriracha Cream, if desired.
Per serving: 208 calories (45 percent from fat), 11 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 4 milligrams cholesterol, 27 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 183 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Johnna Perry of InJohnnasKitchen.com
Char Bar Jackknife Sandwich
Makes 4 sandwiches
1 pound fresh or canned jackfruit, drained
4 Farm to Market brioche buns
1/2 cup Char Bar Table Sauce by Meat Mitch, available at the restaurant, KC grocery stores or meatmitch.com
4 slices provolone cheese
1 avocado, sliced
For the smoked jackfruit: Fire up your smoker according to manufacturers’ directions.
Dice the jackfruit into 1/2 -inch by 1/2 -inch cubes. Place the diced jackfruit on a fine wire rack and insert into the coolest part of the smoker. Smoke jackfruit for 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from smoker and chill thoroughly.
To assemble the sandwich: Slice and toast the buns; set aside.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet or sauté pan and add the smoked jackfruit and BBQ sauce. Stir until all of the jackfruit is coated and hot throughout.
Divide the hot jackfruit onto toasted bottom buns. Top with sliced provolone and melt under the broiler. Top melted cheese with sliced avocado, pickled jalapenos and top bun.
Per sandwich: 434 calories (37 percent from fat), 18 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 20 milligrams cholesterol, 57 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams protein, 752 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
From Michael Peterson, corporate chef of Beer KC Restaurants