Danger or delight? Uphill battle for Brazil’s huge jackfruit

David Biller

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — On the morning of February 10, a cyclist chugged his way up the curves of Rio de Janeiro’s most popular sport cycling road. A familiar scent wafted in the air.

It was the smell of jackfruit, vaguely cloying and ripe with peril.

Without warning, one fruit plummeted from the heavily laden canopy of Tijuca National Park. It hit the cyclist on the head, cracking his helmet and sending him sprawling.

There had long been stories of the world’s largest tree-borne fruit divebombing passersby. Now it was no longer urban legend, and that was potential trouble for Marisa Furtado and Pedro Lobão, a couple who have taken up the challenge of rehabilitating the fruit’s public image.

Jackfruit is abundant during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, but many Brazilians are loath to eat it. Historically, it has been consumed more by the poor or enslaved; in barbecue-mad Brazil, the idea of fruit substituting for meat is viewed with suspicion.

It’s considered an invasive species, even if it arrived here centuries ago. Ecologists disdain it for crowding out native species in 13 federal conservation units across Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, especially Tijuca park, one of the world’s largest urban forests.

Pedro Lobao ropes a jackfruit to lower to his partner Marisa Furtado on the grounds of the state’s government palace in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. PHOTOS: AP
Guarani women cut jackfruit in the Sapukai village near Angra dos Reis, Rio de Janeiro state
ABOVE & BELOW: Head Chef Daniel Biron holds a plate of his top-selling appetiser BBQ jackfruit tacos at the plant-based restaurant Teva; and Chef Regina Tchelly and Director of the Hand in the Jackfruit organisation Marisa Furtado peel jackfruit seeds at the culinary project Favela Organica run by Tchelly in the Babilonia favela

And now cyclists spreading news of the accident on message groups and Facebook were accusing the fruit of assault. One posted that he had skidded out on jackfruit. Others shared close calls, like a jackfruit exploding so close it splattered a bike’s spokes with shrapnel. Riding under jackfruit, another said, was like Russian roulette.

But this isn’t the jackfruit Furtado knows and loves.

Furtado, 57, drinks a jackfruit smoothie every day. She dreams of a pilgrimage to the jackfruit’s point of origin, India. Her 2020 Christmas card? A photo of herself beside a whopping, 73-pound jackfruit – enough to prepare roughly 150 dishes. Its Yuletide message: “May abundance be with you all in 2021”.

She and her 54-year-old boyfriend, Lobão, collect unripe jackfruits from trees, process them for sale, donate whatever they can’t unload, and share free recipes. She rattles off entrees – jackfruit cod, jackfruit lasagna, jackfruit pie, jackfruit tenderloin – and insisted that they are both tasty and nutritious.

“History loads the jackfruit with prejudice. Today we hear about the jackfruit that stinks… the violent jackfruit, the invasive jackfruit,” Furtado said. “It’s true: Jackfruit adapted very well. So everyone who adapted this well to Brazil should be exterminated?”

In the 17th Century, the Portuguese transported jackfruit seedlings to Brazil, where it was visual curiosity, and the tree soon reached Rio, according to environmental and ecological history specialist Rogério Oliveira.

Rio’s forest was getting cleared for timber, charcoal, coffee and sugar cane plantations, said Oliveira, an associate professor at Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University (PUC).

The emperor ordered massive reforestation. Jackfruit thrived in the degraded soil and produced gargantuan fruit that crashed to the ground and tumbled downhill, scattering seeds. The trees – which can reach 80 feet tall – took root, anchoring the soil and feeding animals.

Thirty-four vertebrates in Brazil partake, including agoutis and black capuchin monkeys, according to a paper that journal Tropical Ecology published this month. Endangered golden-headed lion tamarins, too. Population densities are higher where jackfruit is their primary food.

That belies potential problems, said Ecology Professor at Rio’s Federal Rural University Rodolfo Abreu.

“Instead of favouring diversity of fauna, of amphibians, of insects, you prioritise those who use jackfruit. You simplify the tropical chain,” said Abreu, a biologist who has studied jackfruit’s invasiveness. “Some rare species start to disappear, or become rarer.”

To the extent Brazilian humans consume jackfruit, it’s mostly eaten ripe. It tastes like a combination of pear and banana.

Unripe jackfruit is used in savoury dishes. In India, jackfruit has been a meat alternative for centuries, even called “tree goat” in West Bengal state, said a farming magazine editor Shree Padre. Once considered a poor person’s crop, cultivation and export have increased, coinciding with global interest in the “superfood”, he said.

In Rio’s tony Ipanema neighbourhood, plant-based restaurant Teva’s top-selling appetiser is BBQ jackfruit tacos, said head chef Daniel Biron. His clientele is often surprised by a fruit normally encountered littering trails in a state of pungent rot.

“They’re impacted because they start to open their minds to a universe they didn’t know,” said Biron, 44. “The jackfruit has that capacity.”

Furtado and Lobao’s organisation is Hand in the Jackfruit ( Mao na Jaca, in Portuguese), a twist on the phrase “foot in the jackfruit”, which means to slip up or go too far. The expression is evocative for anyone who has plunged a Havaiana sandal into decomposing mush, from which seeds protrude like garlic cloves.

On a recent day, Furtado and Lobão loaded 139 pounds of seeds into a squeaky shopping cart for delivery to a chef in Babilonia, one of Rio’s hillside favelas.

Regina Tchelly, who hails from poor, northeastern Paraiba state, enjoyed jackfruit flesh and roasted seeds as a girl. In 2018, with money tight, she dreamt up a spin on shredded chicken dumplings made from jackfruit. It sold like crazy, said Tchelly, who runs culinary project Favela Organica.

Tchelly swapped some recipes, like her jackfruit seed ceviche, for Furtado’s seeds. She said jackfruit could end Brazilian hunger – a fresh concern after the government ended COVID-19 welfare payments. “It’s a food that’s so abundant, and the jackfruit can bring lots of nutrients to your body and be a source of income,” Tchelly said.

During the pandemic, the road into Tijuca park has become an ideal venue for socially-distanced exercise, and so potential jackfruit targets abound. Some cyclists contacted authorities after the accident, demanding action that could include cutting overhead branches or tree removal.

“Before, removal of jackfruit trees was an internal issue of the park. But now there are jackfruits threatening lives!” said founder of Rio de Janeiro’s Cycling Safety Commission Raphael Pazos, 46. “If he hadn’t been wearing a helmet, or if it had fallen on a four-year-old, it could’ve killed.”

By phone, Furtado tried to calm the outcry by reaching out to cyclists, including the one who was struck. He declined AP interview requests.

She sought to steer them toward mapping jackfruit trees’ locations, posting signs about their benefits and organising collection of fruit. Along the road, she said, jackfruits could be snagged using a truck-mounted crane then donated to surrounding communities, with Hand in the Jackfruit holding workshops to teach the sticky, labour-intensive art of processing. She spoke at length with Tijuca park’s coordinator, too, and made her case.

Furtado acknowledges the importance of diversity, but argues a centuries-old Brazilian resident shouldn’t be cast out of the garden.

“It’s an inheritance that needs to be valued, from the social, economic, cultural and environmental points of view,” she posted on Instagram. “Eradicating it would be a huge error and part of the arrogance of those who don’t perceive life is dynamic.”