As we drove through the outskirts of Metro Manila on our way to the city of Tagaytay in Cavite province, we passed seemingly interminable rows of fruit stalls along the side of the road. Even as we sped by too fast to take decent pictures with my perky little Canon, I could spot such familiar fare as bananas, pineapples and young coconuts among the abundant offerings. What really caught my eye, however, were the giant, benubbed, mottled-green pods propped up against table legs and stall posts, some cut in half to display a ghostly white inner core.
The size of a small child but not nearly as cute
"What are those?" I asked my mother, my voice tinged with alarm at spying such an alien mass. Despite the blurred scene out the car window as we whooshed by, she knew exactly what I was referring to. "Oh, those are langka," she replied nonchalantly.
What? Those freakish, monster things are langka - jackfruit? The stuff I put in my banana turons just weeks ago, posted on this very blog and actually ate?! My shocked reaction seems absurd now but I had reason: the ponderous produce displayed at those roadside stands bore no resemblance to the mango-y, syrup-drenched, fist-sized fruit that I thought I knew so well. But they are indeed one and the same.
The jackfruit tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus) originated in India and eventually spread throughout Southeast Asia as well as parts of Africa and coastal Brazil. Its eponymous fruit is the largest tree-borne variety in the world, growing as long as 3 feet and weighing close to 80 lbs. In short, my friends, this is one fruit tree that you don't want to shake. Newton should be grateful he didn't fall asleep under one of these behemoths.
On closer inspection, it's starting to look more familiar . . .
As embarrassing as it is to admit, I had no idea what an actual jackfruit looked like. My sole point of reference were the pictures on the canned variety, none of which portrayed the whole fruit, much less give it a sense of scale. Call it the "Tragedy of the Common Canning" - the process necessary to preserve fruits, vegetables and animal proteins in hermetically-sealed tinplate renders them virtually unrecognizable from their original form and has left generations of consumers in the dark about what their food really looks like.
Canning's genesis is rooted, like many modern innovations, in warfare: in the late 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte offered a generous cash prize to anyone with a method of food preservation that could safely and conveniently provision his troops. Former candy maker Nicholas Appert claimed the prize in 1810 with his method of heating glass containers to force out air and thereby preserve the food contents. Later, a trio of Englishmen - Peter Durand, Bryan Donkin and John Hall - developed the use of tinplate cans instead of glass and established the first industrial factory for commercial canning. [Read more about the history of canning here]
In time, canning became an inexpensive and convenient way to provide consumers with exotic foodstuff from distant sources. Author Reay Tannahill writes in her book, Food in History:
"[C]ustomers of the prairies of the [American] mid-west or in the urban slums of Manchester had no access to, and had probably never even tasted, the fresh product, and so were ready enough to welcome the canned versions, which added much-needed variety to the diet. "Jackfruit trees, for instance, grow well only in tropical climates and its ripe fruit decays rapidly; as a result, there are only a few such trees in the continental United States (in Florida and California) and the market for its fruit must rely on canned products from Asia. Throw in marketing strategies that probably argued fervently against depicting an enormous mutant fruit pod on the label and you can hardly blame me for not recognizing the source of my turon ingredient.
Finally, the liberated fruit on display at Salcedo Market
Now I know better. I tasted fresh jackfruit during a visit to the Salcedo Saturday Market in Makati and needless to say, it was wonderful. The flavor of langka has been variously described as akin to bananas or pineapple but those descriptors ignore texture; to me, it is more like a very firm mango in both color and taste. Due to that firmness, it holds up well to cooking; in Filipino cuisine, it is used in both savory and sweet dishes, especially those using the ginata method (cooking with coconut milk), and is a common flavoring for sweet pastries and candies.
Aside from banana turons, I haven't made any other Filipino dish with langka so I decided to incorporate it into a decidedly all-American baked good: the muffin. If you've never had jackfruit before, this makes a mild yet delicious introduction.
The base muffin recipe comes from the Pillsbury Complete Book of Baking, with some adjustments to make use of the langka syrup.
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup chopped langka, drained but reserving 1/4 cup syrup
1/4 cup sugar
3 tsps baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup oil
1 egg, beaten
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease bottoms only of muffin or line with paper cups;
2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, and mix well;
3. Separately, combine milk, syrup, oil and egg, and blend well;
4. Combine wet and dry ingredients, and add chopped langka. Mix just until dry ingredients are moistened; batter will be lumpy.
5. Spoon batter into muffin cups, 2/3 full and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean;
6. Cool before removing from pan.
Optional: I topped the muffins with slices of ripe plantain and a sprinkling of brown sugar and chopped walnuts. Leapin' langka - these taste so good!