Among specialty produce items gaining in popularity with U.S. consumers are Asian vegetables and tropical items.
“What is interesting about the specialty category is the crossover between the products and which category they fall into,” said Alex Jackson Berkley, assistant sales manager for Frieda’s, based in Los Alamitos, CA, who recently appeared in a feature in the trade publication The Packer.
“Many fruit items that are popular in the Asian culture are also common in the Latin culture, like dragon fruit (photograph), lychee, rambutan, jackfruit and mangosteen.
“The Asian vegetable category has taken off as many people are becoming more familiar with the items through Asian restaurants,” Jackson Berkley said in The Packer.
“Retailers are looking to compete with the big Asian retailers by bringing in a variety of Asian items at a low retail price. This is going beyond bok choy and napa cabbage. Items like bittermelon, Chinese okra, gai lan and Chinese long beans are more common in the retail (setting).”
World Variety Produce of Los Angeles, which markets under the Melissa’s brand, has seen increasing interest in turmeric, petite baby bok choy and petite Shanghai bok choy, among other Asian items, while jackfruit continues on an upward trajectory despite its massive size.
“The trendiest fruit of them all in the category of tropicals is definitely the jackfruit,” Robert Schueller of Melissa’s added in The Packer article. “It has so much potential.”
“The only problem with the jackfruit and why not every retailer is carrying it is because it’s the largest of all fruit,” Schueller said. “These fruits are typically at least 12 pounds, but on average they are around 20 pounds.”
When the retail price is $2-3 per pound, jackfruit quickly becomes quite pricey.
“It’s a value when it’s per pound, but the thing is that retailers don’t want to deal with cutting it up because there’s a whole art to doing that … It would be considered kind of a tricky fruit to handle,” Schueller said.
Jackson Berkley also noted turmeric and jackfruit as growth items, particularly due to the plant-based eating trend.
Schueller attributed much of the buzz around jackfruit to its use among vegans as a meat substitute.
Both Jackson Berkley and Schueller mentioned dragon fruit has been a hot item as well.
HLB Specialities of Fort Lauderdale, FL report papayas and rambutan are best-sellers for the company, with rambutan experiencing the most growth since HLB began offering it three years ago.
Ecoripe Tropicals of Medley, FL points out rambutan, dragon fruit, durian, longan, lychee, mangosteen and soursop are among the items drawing the most interest for the company.
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Ever heard of jackfruit? Some are considering it America’s next big meat alternative.
Diners familiar with Indian kathal ki biryani, Vietnamese sinh to mit, or Filipino halo-halo may already be familiar with the jackfruit, that relative of the fig that can grow to an enormous size and smells either exquisitely perfumed or nauseating, depending on the person.
It has been used as an alternative in Asia for possible thousands of years as a meat alternative. according to Daniel Staackman of Upton’s Naturals, a vegan food company/cafe that sells pre-seasoned and pre-packaged jackfruit among its line of products.
The jackfruit tree that is easily grown and drought-resistant, with very nutritious fruit that happens to bear a striking resemblance to meat when cooked. Every part of this native Southeast Asian tree can be used. In fact, green jackfruit, aka the “meaty” part of the fruit usually only available canned in the United States, is actually the entire fruit — rind, flesh, and seed — before it has had a chance to mature (or grow to up to 100 pounds).
There are a number of companies selling the pre-cooked and seasoned fruit as a meat substitute, with a rapidly growing market across the U.S. By marketing the young fruit as healthful vegan food, brands have found a way to use the fruit at early stages, when it is much easier to preserve and ship. And many restaurants and brands have recently started marketing jackfruit as a “vegan pulled pork,” citing other vegan cooks and recipe developers as inspiration.
But while it might seem like this fruit — a far cry from slow smoked pig — came out of nowhere in the United States, its development as profitable product has been happening simultaneously in India, a country where (according to advocates and entrepreneurs) currently 80 percent of the jackfruit grown goes to waste. But how are groups in both countries — from agricultural experts to vegan chefs — developing the supply chain and market for this fruit? And could the jackfruit be key to fighting food insecurity worldwide?
The reason we weren’t already eating jackfruit all the time is that jackfruit is difficult to work with. “A whole jackfruit is a commitment. They can be the size of a toddler,” says cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, whose books Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and Asian Dumplings feature jackfruit recipes, albeit for the fully ripe fruit. The resin under the rind sticks to anything that isn’t oiled, and gloves must be worn to break it down. Its smell when fully ripe is also too close to that of the infamous durian for many people.
Jackfruit is grown in many countries, but India — with a vegetarian population in the hundreds of millions — is the only one with a history of using the young fruit as a stand-in for meat, most often in stir-fries, curries, and a popular rice dish called kathal ki biryani. The Bengal word for the fruit translates as “tree mutton” or “the meat which grows on a tree.” In northern India, it’s known as Brahmin’s meat, or “meat” for the revered portion of the Hindu population made of priests, teachers, and religious scholars.
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