Ibn Battuta, the Jackfruit and Mexico

I was reading the Travels of Ibn Battuta (The Travels of Ibn Battuta: in the Near East, Asia and Africa, 1325-1354) , mostly for his views on how India was or used to be in the 1300s, but I did not expect him to have many opinions about the plant life. Like everyone else, he describes fruits and trees based on what he is familiar with, and so the mango is referred to as a grape, and the tree itself compared to an orange tree, except to point out that the mango tree has more leaves. But I was pleasantly surprised to read his description of the jackfruit, and reading it only made me miss the fruit more.

“Of their fruits are those termed the Shaki and Barki, the trees of which are high, and their leaves are like the Jawz (Indian nut); the fruit grows out from the bottom of the tree, and that which grows nearest to the earth is called the Barki; it is extremely sweet and well flavoured in taste; what grows above this is the Shaki. Its fruit resembles that of the great gourd, its rind the skin of an ox. When it grows yellow in the autumn, they gather and divide it: and in the inside of each is from one to two hundred seeds. Its seed resembles that of a cucumber, and has a stone something like a large bean. When the stone is roasted, it tastes like a dried bean. These, i.e., the Shaki and Barki, are the best fruits found in Hindustan.”

I was also surprised to learn that Ibn Battuta reveals that there are two species of jackfruit, I thought there was only one. The book I’m quoting from was translated and edited by Rev. Samuel Lee (published in 1829). In a footnote, Lee states that there are two species called the (common) jack and the Champadak. Further he states that the word jack comes from the Telinga word jaka. But Wikipedia has an older source for the word, the fruit is called Chakka in Malayalam. There are a few species of jackfruits, and the small one, the Champadak seems to be restricted to southeast Asia. Maybe in the 1300s , there were both species in India. In fact, Wikipedia again states that there are two varieties in Kerala.

Jackfruits (Artocarpus heterophylla) are a South and Southeast Asian species, with a distribution ranging from India to Philippines. Which is a very roundabout way of stating that of course they are not found here in the New World, except maybe in Brazil where they are an invasive species. I speculate that the planetary gardeners, the Portuguese, had something to do with it. But I have had three encounters with the jackfruit in Mexico.

The first was in a small town called San Blas off the pacific coast of Mexico. We were there, idling away the day, before catching a tiny fisherman’s boat to the island of Isla Isabel. We were going to send a week there helping out a Ph.D. student at the UNAM with a project on the blue-footed booby. But before the appointment with the boatman, we wandered around San Blas, a tiny dusty square, the odd hippy handicraft place and the mud roads that wandered off half heartedly into the countryside. And there, at the corner in a milkshake stall, among the usual list of banana and chocolate milkshakes, I saw the word jacka! Stunned, disbelievingly, I ordered one and it was indeed a Jackfruit milkshake. I asked the man where he got the fruit and he told me that he knew somebody who had a tree, and that was all he said.

The second encounter was several months later, on the other end of the country, in a village called Acapetahua, a couple of hours away from the border (southern border) town of Tapachula, I was visiting family of a colleague when the topic turned to the Jackfruit. I don’t now remember whether there was any there at that lunch, or some story about a tree in the backyard that had to be cut down, a tree that produced such strange fruit, and in such quantity that no one quite knew what to make of it. And then one day the upkeep, the maintenance, of this beast of a tree was just too much and so it was felled. They seemed quite unmoved, but I felt a pang.

The third encounter was back in Xalapa, a few kms that way, towards the river, hidden among a series of driveways and forested paths, in the house of a friend of a friend, both passionate biologists. We were having tea on the balcony and they were telling us how when they started building this house, they had a great view of the hills, especially the Cofre de Perote from the balcony, but their effort in transforming the plantation land into a forest had worked so well that the very trees they’d planted were now closing off the view. And the lady of the house brought out a dish and said, you might find this familiar, and I almost yelped in surprise at the familiar pieces of jackfruit. They have a tree. I have seen it.

It was like greeting an old friend.


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