I'm back from a wonderful trip to India and already suffering serious withdrawal symptoms from all the delicious food I enjoyed there! On any trip home, I make sure to load up on all the once-common, now-exotic fruits and vegetables that are hard to come by here in the US. Sapodilla (sapota), limetta (sathukudi), elephant yam (chenai), and tender coconut juice (elaneer) to name just a few.
Possibly the most exotic of these is the jack fruit (chakka), the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, sometimes weighing in at a massive 100 pounds! The fruit has a spiny inedible skin that encases bright yellow, highly perfumed fleshy pods. These taste like a cross between a pineapple and a banana. The pods contain large round seeds that are also edible.
In my native state of Kerala, jack fruit trees are found in every backyard and the plentiful fruit are used in myriad ways, both when raw and ripe. Most of these are rustic, homey dishes that you will never find in any restaurant! The flesh of the raw jack fruit has a meaty texture that makes it suitable for many vegetarian curries, some of which also include the boiled seeds that are an excellent source of protein. The ripe pulp is cooked with unrefined cane sugar (jaggery) to make a fruit preserve known as chakkavaratti. This fruit paste keeps very well in the freezer and is delicious by itself, or caramelized with fresh coconut. It is also used as a base for many kinds of snacks and desserts.
One of my favorite recipes using jack fruit is elai adai, a rice dumpling filled with sweet jack fruit paste and coconut. A thin batter made with ground rice is first spread on a banana leaf. Next, a spoonful of the filling is spread on one side of the batter. Now comes the tricky part: folding the leaf over so that the batter encloses the filling, while tucking in the sides so that it does not ooze out! The banana leaf parcels are then steamed over boiling water for 15-20 minutes, or until done. My sister turned out to be a dab hand at it, so I was able to click happily away as she deftly spread, filled, folded and stacked.
These dumplings make a great breakfast, snack or anytime treat - the moist, chewy and slightly salty rice covering provides a nice foil for the sweet, fruity filling. Try them with other sweet or savory fillings as well!
Recipe: Elai Adai (Banana leaf parcels)
Makes about 15 parcels, approximately 4"X2"
1 cup raw rice
Salt to taste
A few teaspoons all-purpose flour
Filling of choice: The pictures above show the traditional jack fruit paste caramelized with coconut and jaggery. Other ideas include savory curried vegetables, or grated coconut caramelized with brown sugar or jaggery.
Soak the rice in water for at least two hours. Grind to a fine paste, adding more water to thin the batter as necessary. Season with salt and mix in a few teaspoons of al-purpose flour to make the batter more spreadable.
To fill and shape:
Spread a couple of tablespoons of the batter evenly in a circle on a banana leaf or parchment paper. Spoon a little of the filling on one half of the circle. Working quickly, fold the leaf over and tuck the sides in so that the filling is enclosed completely. Repeat with remaining batter and filling. Stack the leaf parcels in a steamer and cook over boiling water till firm.