Meet the Kerala journalist leading a global campaign to put jackfruit on our dinner tablesLiving continents apart, Miriam Martinez Joya and Shyamanna have little in common but their deep and abiding love for the humble jackfruit. Joya, a California-based entrepreneur, drives her jackfruit truck selling value-added jackfruit products every day, while Shyamanna, a practicing doctor, steals time away from his patients to care for the thousands of jackfruit trees growing in his orchard in Devanahalli, on the outskirts of Bengaluru.
Those who would consider such passion for a fruit misplaced, should meet Joya and Shyamanna’s inspiration – a man named Shree Padre who has become a self-appointed global campaigner for jackfruit in Swarga, Kerala.
At 61, Padre describes himself as “a farmer by profession and a journalist by obsession”. Padre is the founding editor of Areca News – later re-branded as Adike Patrike or the Areca nut magazine – a Kannada publication aimed at educating farmers. Though the magazine once primarily focused on areca nut farming, it came as no surprise to anyone who knew Padre, when Adike Patrike began to publish stories on jackfruit from 2006 – the year Padre took it upon himself to bring the fruit back into the limelight.
Jack of all trades
In the past decade under Padre, Adike Patrike has published 28 cover stories on jackfruit – 14 of which were special issues. The articles spoke of the success of jackfruit farmers in India and abroad, entrepreneurs who set up factories for value addition to jackfruit, unique events for promoting the fruit, restaurants that serve unique jackfruit dishes as well as the health benefits of the fruit. “Since 2006, there has been no issue of Patrike that has not carried at least one or two positive stories about jackfruit,” Padre told Scroll.in with a smile. It began when Padre realised that Kerala, the largest jackfruit producer in India, also wasted colossal amounts of the fruit every year.“This is even after exporting 50,000 tonnes of the fruit annually to various places in North India,” he said.
Kerala has a deep connection with the biggest tree-borne fruit in the world, which dates back hundreds of years. When the Portuguese arrived in India, they named this fruit Jaca, slightly modifying its original Malayalam name, Chakka. Later, the British amended this further and the modern-day jackfruit received its name. Even today, jackfruit or chakka is an integral part of several Kerala dishes, including the popular Chakka Thoran, a coconut-based fry and Chakka Puzhukku or boiled jackfruit.
While the fruit is rich in Vitamins B-Complex and C, as well as minerals, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, niacin and sulphur, most people prefer not to cook it because of the tremendous effort required to pluck, cut, and cook the fruit. As a result, it is common to be greeted with the sight (and somewhat cloying scent) of thousands of ripe jackfruits decaying on the ground in Kerala. In the northern parts of the country, tender jackfruit is eaten mainly as a vegetable. Padre says the city of Nagpur consumes one truck load of tender jackfruit every day. “Phanas Curry is a popular dish in North India which uses jackfruit,” he said. “It is also served as a meat substitute in many restaurants. Jackfruit dishes are a must at big fat North Indian weddings these days.”
Frustrated, Padre was desperately looking for a solution to check the colossal wastage of jackfruit in his home town of Swarga, when he found a small advertisement in a Kannada newspaper in 2006. “It announced vacuum fried jackfruit chips produced by Gokul Foods in Kundapura, near Mangalore in Karnataka,” he said. “I was happy to see a jackfruit processing plant which would reduce wastage. We made it a cover story. There was no looking back since then.”
This was just the beginning of Padre’s explorations. The search for still better ways to utilise the jackfruit ultimately took the editor and his team to various places in India and abroad. His travels convinced him that the absence of a supply chain and processing facilities in the country were the biggest problems faced by jackfruit growers. Shortage of labour in villages compounded their woes, as there was no one to pluck the fruit, de-seed it and collect the flakes.
“Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have better utilisation and farming of jackfruit,” he said. “It helps them reduce wastage and ensure food security.”When he could not travel, the inquisitive farmer-journalist forged ties with farmers and entrepreneurs in various parts of the world who helped him understand the status of jackfruit everywhere through email and WhatsApp. Padre feels that ignorance has caused people to underestimate his favourite fruit and tree. “They fail to understand that this is the real Kalpavriksha, a tree whose every part is useful.”
In addition to shade, Padre said a jackfruit tree keeps the microclimate cool. Its dry leaves can be used to cover vegetable and flower plants, while green leaves and roots are used as medicines. As the tree grows bigger over the years, there is a huge demand for its timber.
“Jackfruit is among the biggest organically grown fruit,” he said. “It can be used either as a vegetable or fruit. However, people these days are ignoring the tree and fruit.”
At present, Padre is the administrator of two groups on email and WhatsApp, on which over 200 members discuss the issues faced by jackfruit growers everywhere. The Aranmula Jackfruit Whatsapp group includes Kerala’s Minister for Agriculture, VS Sunil Kumar.
“It makes me happy to know that I inspired Miriam Joya to set up the jack-truck in California, or Dr Shyamanna to grow an entire jackfruit orchard in Bangalore,” he said. Although Adike Patrike is published in Kannada, Padre sends images of each story the magazine carries with English captions, to his worldwide jackfruit-fan club through email and WhatsApp.
“Many people had ridiculed us when we started promoting jackfruit,” Padre said with the air of a man whose efforts had finally borne fruit. “But things have changed – the jackfruit is definitely going to be the next big thing on Indian dining tables soon.”