Every summer of our childhood was spent climbing the thirteen hair pin bends that led to our quiet getaway in the Nilgiris. Among the sights that greeted me along the way were huge trees upon the trunks of which rested large numbers of jackfruit.The air too at those points was heavy with their sweet scent.
We would eat these occasionally with honey if and when it was placed before me and that was where my interaction with this fruit ended.
About a decade or so ago ,one of my kitchen helpers who hailed from Pudukottai got quite excited when she saw a small unripe jackfruit that had been sent from our farm. At first I wondered why it was so tiny ( in my mind it was a midget version in comparison to the gigantic specimens I’d seen on the hill slopes of my car journeys) and then got curious why it was cause for such joy. She was completely aghast that I had never before eaten a(what she referred to as) “palakkai” (although in her pudukkotai tamil twang she said it more like “plakka” … one had to fill in the missing vowels ! ).I of course thought I knew better and corrected her saying “pala pazham”. The woman thought I’d lost it big time ! She went on to explain that this was an unripe variety of jackfruit and was delicious when cooked and added to curries and poriyals. True enough it was.
But back then I never really made a conscious effort to add it to our diet. We ate it as long as Chellamma was around to cook it ,once she went back to her village it was soon forgotten.
A few years ago as I wandered about the farm I looked up at two very tall , lush trees and wondered what they were. A few months later, the objects of my curious fascination began blooming. The pale green flowers are rather beautiful to behold. They can be best described as having an exotic oriental orchid like upward curve at the tip of the petals. Soon thereafter the fruits started making an appearance. There it was, the light bulb moment. I was looking at the “palakka” and was taught it’s more frequently used name in these parts, “karipala” or breadfruit ,in English. The shape of the trees,the point where the fruits grow ,the size of the fruit all vastly differed from the jackfruit. It was only the shape and the appearance of the outer skin that caused a bit of similarity between the two.
I missed old Chellamma and I wished she could taste some of my cooking. With her in mind I made my first karipala dish, which I called karipala chops. Once cut open the inside portion reveals feathery layers that come apart. All it required was a quick marinade of turmeric, chilli powder,a bit of ginger and garlic paste and salt. Let it sizzle on the tava with a spoon of oil and it turns all golden. It does have a bit of a sweet aftertaste which is a perfect contrast for the chilli and a squeeze of lemon. Later when I got used to adding this ingredient to our regular diet options I started looking at the many possibilities for this savoury fruit. My sister-in-law Ramya makes a delicious palakkai kozhambhu and I know of a few friends who excel in their karipala biriyani skills. The wholesome texture allows it to stand up to heavy masalas and makes for a great healthy vegetarian alternative to even a typical non-vegetarian recipe. Even the folks that shy away from adding mushroom to their diet are very happy with the versatility of the karipala.
In the recent years this is an ingredient that has found it’s way to many of our hindu -wedding –ellai sappadu meals. Many caterers are finding it a convenient option to add to their menu both in terms of availability and adaptability to different recipes. In the past year the demand has gone up considerably for this unique produce. I know for a fact because the farm has been visited several times by enthusiastic karipala dealers who are on the look out for land to plant more of these trees. One chap offered to bring in 250 saplings ! Imagine that !
The wealth of produce around us never ceases to amaze me. I’m thankful for celebrity chefs like Manu Chandra who celebrate ingredients like this bread fruit by including it in their restaurant menu at Toast & Tonic , Bangalore . The most exciting food journey is ,I think , to be able to create new age dishes that appeal to a universal palate using traditional ingredients.This is food education at it’s best !