Jackfruit. It's showing up packaged on grocery store shelves and as a meatless ingredient on restaurant menus and dinner tables for vegans, vegetarians, and meat-free fans everywhere. It's been touted as a "miracle" food crop and was even dubbed a "rising star" food trend by Google as far back as 2016.
If you haven't stumbled across jackfruit yet, here's the deal — it's a large tropical fruit grown in southern and southeast Asia with a tangy, juicy flesh; it's sweet when ripe, but unripe, it has a blander flavor that makes it the perfect vehicle for all kinds of savory dishes. But what's truly magical in faux meat dishes is its texture; jackfruit shreds into strands that closely resemble pulled pork. Shred the pulp, give it a quick sauté with you favorite barbecue sauce, and serve it on a soft bun topped with pickles for a completely satisfying meatless meal.
But does it really resemble meat? If you're a diehard carnivore who chows down on burgers, steaks, bacon, and sausage, can a meal made with jackfruit really satisfy? How much does it actually taste like meat, anyway? I decided to put this miracle fruit to the test with a few of my unsuspecting, meat-loving friends.
Here was the setup: I sent out a dinner invite, saying that I was testing some recipes for an article I was writing (I do some recipe developing on the side, so this was a totally plausible claim) and needed some guinea pigs to taste some new recipes. That night, I prepared some chicken fajitas using bell peppers, onions, and (real) chicken oven-roasted with spices to throw people off track with a completely legit, tasty dish. Then I prepped my secret ingredients — chili lime carnitas jackfruit and barbecue jackfruit kindly provided by Upton's Naturals. It's pre-packaged, pre-seasoned jackfruit that you simply heat on the stovetop for a few minutes before serving. I set out an array of Mexican fixings — corn tortillas, cilantro, salsa, sour cream, cotija cheese, lime wedges — and told everyone it was do-it-yourself (real) chicken fajitas and (fake) pulled pork tacos. The idea was that diners would build their own jackfruit tacos, partially masking the main ingredient with toppings to hide the fact that they weren't actually eating pork. I served the barbecue jackfruit as "pulled pork" sandwiches on soft potato rolls topped with coleslaw, also to disguise the "meat."
My guests dug in, and I watched them carefully for any signs of confusion, distaste, or disgust. Would they spit it out? Boldly declare that this was obviously not pork and accuse me of being a liar? Everyone chewed dutifully under my scrutiny and made their initial pronouncements. "Tasty!" "Delicious." "Great!" But were they just being polite? Once they finished eating I dug deeper, asking probing questions and reassuring my trusting tasters that they could be as critical as they liked and I would find it helpful, not offensive.
"What did you like, and what would you improve?" "What do you think about the texture?" "How was the flavor?" "Was it meaty enough?" "Be totally, brutally honest."
E described the tacos as "spicy and tangy" with a "soft" texture; G said the texture was "on the softer side" though neither wanted to describe them as "mushy," even when prompted. (I was trying to encourage them to be as harsh as possible.) "It was just so nice and tender. And the cut was nice and small," D chimed in.
The texture for the barbecue jackfruit sandwich was also received positively, though they wished the sauce were spicier. D wanted more smoky flavor in the sauce. At one point E did say, "The flavor of the pulled pork was… was it pulled pork?" (I nodded but didn't verbally commit.)
When I finally confessed that I had served them jackfruit, not pork, my guests were pretty much blown away. "Oh, so it's not meat?" G asked, surprised. "Oh wow, interesting."
E was relieved that I had finally 'fessed up. "Now that you say that, I wasn't exactly sure what it was," he admitted. "I thought it was artichokes. I thought it was pork mixed with artichokes, and that's where the tanginess was coming from. Then I thought that other stuff was pork but it wasn't chewy, like meat is, so I thought maybe it's just been braised for a really long time."
But could they guess it wasn't meat at all? Did they think it was something weird? "Absolutely not," said G. "I totally couldn't tell it wasn't pork."
"I didn't think it was weird at all," E agreed, though he added, "I think you can tell that it's different."
Thankfully, none of my friends were angry that I tricked them, and in fact they were all thrilled to be part of my experiment. "I needed a little excitement in my life," D said. "You should do this every weekend!"
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