JACK – THE UNKNOWN SRI LANKAN

Jack Tree

JACK – THE UNKNOWN SRI LANKAN

I’ve lived in Sri Lanka since the prehistoric period. Like so many of my closest relatives, many of my best attributes are used but not understood. You can easily recognise me, by the way, I stand tall and proud in the jungles and lowlands of my island home.

If you are sitting reading this, I’m supporting you. The door to your room and the desk at which you work, in all likelihood, carry my seal of approval. There is so much more to me than my strength and ability to endure almost anything you think of throwing at me.

I work hard at bringing you joy at mealtime. My character is the foundation of many iconic recipes that Sri Lankans have enjoyed for centuries. I am sweet. I am spicy. I am versatile. I am loved by Sri Lankans and the tourist who visit this tropical paradise.

Tall and Majestic, Strong and Productive

The wooded hillsides of Sri Lanka are filled with a biodiversity of flora and fauna that is part endemic and partly the remnants of the dozens of cultures who have invaded or conquered the island from antiquity to the present day. One example is the 17 varieties of avocado found island-wide. Many are cross-pollinated, some trees bearing 2 different varieties on different branches.

In the midst of the clutter of flora, the majestic jackfruit tree stands true. Used for furniture, construction and ornamental carving its wood is highly prized. Apart from pockets of truly ancient rainforests, such as The Sinarajah Rainforest, the greatest trees in the woodlands are smaller, younger and shorter than their older relatives.

Botanical records reveal Artocarpus heterophyllus may be more than 25m (80 feet) tall, with a diameter exceeding 1.1m (38 inches). The shiny dark green leaves may form a shady cover that makes the tree as wide as it is tall. Jackfruit trees mature in 5 – 8 years but live for more than 100 years.

The young timber is almost butter yellow when sawn.  Older trees are darker in colour with more pronounced with a tightly aligned grain. The timber should be sawn when freshly cut (4 – 8 weeks after felling) then allowed to air dry for 4 weeks. During this time period. airflow and undercover is vital to prevent mould spoors on the surface. If necessary the timber should be further dried, either in a kiln or prior to its use. As it dries the colour will darken, firstly to a dark golden brown, and in the right conditions to an orange-brown.

A unique blend of oils and latex-like sap is a natural termite barrier. This may be one of the reasons why the wood of the jackfruit tree is prized for doors, shutters, window frames and furniture. Jackwood is hard, yet not heavy. It is able to be steam bent for bespoke furniture pieces.

The Round and Plump

Jackfruit has been dubbed ‘vegetarian pork’ due to its texture and how it retains its density during baking and cooking. The fruit is about the size of a giant watermelon, up to 60 cm (2 feet) long and up to 30 cm (1 foot) in diameter through its plump centre. When cut open, a white, latex-like sap oozes from every surface. This makes the use of jackfruit very messy. A quick trick to clean any surface that is covered in the sticky gum is easily cleaned using coconut oil. This includes the chef’s hands and knives.

Young jackfruit, less than 30 cm in length are used as a fruit. Cut open, sliced, peeled and then trimmed into 3 cm squares it is served with the young seeds embedded in their individual pockets of jackfruit. It is sweet, aromatic and has an incredible texture on the tongue.

Larger, aged fruit is used for all types of cooking. In Sri Lanka, this means it is the staple of the curries eaten daily. It may be BBQ’ed, slow-roasted or used in stews. Every Sri Lankan family has their own ‘Grandma’s Recipe’ for jackfruit. Some are chilli hot curries, others packed with local spices or combined with a range of other vegetables.

Nothing is wasted in Sri Lanka. After the jackfruit is prepared, the seeds are boiled, peeled and set to dry. Dried seeds are crushed or ground to produce a nut-like base for yet another curry, sambal or added to rice dishes. In some countries, dried seeds are used like chips or roasted nuts.

Nutritional Value

The edible pulp is 74% water, 23% carbohydrates, 2% protein, and 1% fat. The carbohydrate component is primarily sugars and is a source of dietary fibre. It is 20% or more of the Daily Value, (DV) of vitamin B6 (25% DV). It contains moderate levels (10-19% DV) of vitamin C and potassium. Silver, Mark. (2016)

The Law of the Jackfruit Tree

So highly prized is the wood of the jackfruit tree that it is protected by environmental law. A permit must be obtained prior to cutting down or transporting a jackfruit tree.

A black market of timber collectors deploys teams with chainsaws at about 16:00 daily to cut trees and transport them to mills. The process considers the fact that construction workers are in the process of packing up, and the police afternoon shifts are rushing to their station for a 17:00 sign off. By nightfall, the trees are felled. The following day, all day is spent cutting the trees into transportable lengths (1.8 – 3.6 m) and stacked in preparation for the truck’s arrival around 16:30.

Every day across the length and breadth of the island hundreds of the majestic jackfruit trees are decimated in the wild. To counter this, government plantations and approved growing sites and sawmills are developing a sustainable timber industry that provides for the furniture and construction industry and Sri Lanka’s insatiable desire for the meals of their childhood.

 

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