Once upon a time in Goa, jackfruit seeds found a home in the mud collected from anthill mounds, known locally as ro’in. The mud was combined with cow dung to create a slurry used to form a structure around the seeds, preserving them for future use. Cooks and homeowners alike used the seed-and-slurry mixture to plaster their walls; others rubbed the seeds in ash to preserve them. Each of these methods kept the seeds dry and free of fungus — an important attribute, since they were part of the Goan purumenth, the process of preserving ingredients during summer for the upcoming monsoons. During the wet season, the dried seeds were boiled and eaten plain or added to dishes.
Goa is one of the few states in India where jackfruit (called ponos) is abundant, beloved, and used to its full potential: The leaves are used to steam sweets, and the flesh is eaten plain or cooked into curries, chutneys, and syrups. Although the methods for preserving the seeds, or ponos bhikna, have changed with the times, throwing them away still isn’t an option. These ponos bhikna are valuable.
Jackfruit is a special affair in many Goan homes, including mine. Preparing one is a whole event. The sharp scent of the fruit lingers in the air as it’s cleaned, a process that occupies an entire paper-lined table, and requires many hands, all oiled to prevent the fruit’s sap from sticking to the skin. In one basin goes the flesh, sweet and bright yellow, and in another the seeds. Jackfruit seeds are big, about the size of your thumb, and slimy and hard. Their brown-and-white-speckled shells harden to a solid white when they’re dried.
After they’re removed from the fruit, the seeds are soaked in water, rinsed thoroughly, and dried either indoors or in the afternoon sun. With good sun, the drying process takes two to three days; indoors, it can take a week. When the seeds are completely dried, their outer shell gets hard and cracks. After the shell is removed, the seeds are ready to be cooked, usually by boiling them with salt.
Boiling the seeds is simple, though it takes time: typically, at least 20 minutes. Once boiled, they have a starchy, faintly sweet taste, a mix of potato, chestnut, and taro root. They’re also healthy, a good source of iron, protein, fiber, and vitamins — though while the seeds aid in digestion, they can also cause gassiness and bloating if eaten in excess.
Boiled bhikna can take many forms: It can be mashed and formed into vadas and fried; topped with chaat masala and eaten as a snack; cooked down with coconut milk and sugar to make a pudding called kheer, or just added to gravies with other vegetables. In Goa specifically, bhikna is used in different bhajis with seasonal greens like taikilo (cassia tora leaf), colocasia leaves, and maska paana, or drumstick leaf. Kisra curry with tender moringa stems is another popular use for bhikna, as is bhiknacho ross (a coconut curry); gharyachi bhaji, which uses both the seeds and raw jackfruit; and dalicho ross with dal and coconut.
My own family and friends make great use of ponos bhikna’s versatility. My mother adds it to vegetable dishes to bulk up their protein content, while my grand-aunt created her own dish mixing bhikna with salted pork and kokum fruit and called it bhiknel. A friend of mine turns it into hummus, and my neighbor pairs it with other vegetables in a traditional Goan Saraswat mixed vegetable curry called khatkhatem.
My sister-in-law Larissa’s first attempt at cooking jackfruit seeds was a simple preparation, a bhaji on the lines of a chilli fry. “I always thought of bhikna as a tough ingredient and difficult to work with,” she says. “After peeling the seeds, which was surprisingly easy once they were sun-dried, they cooked quickly, giving flavor and absorbing the spices from the dish, blending in well and yet holding their own.” Her experience was a testament to the high-yield rewards of a high-effort ingredient: Whether you boil them, blitz them, pound them, or fry them, jackfruit seeds are open to any experiment.
Ponos Bikna Chilli Fry
By Larissa Menezes Lobo
Serves: 4 to 6
Note: Traditionally this dish is made in a heavy-bottomed pot known as a karahi, or kadhai. If you don’t have one, a wok or rondeau will also work.
300 grams jackfruit seeds, taken from 1 (4-pound) jackfruit, peeled and boiled in salt water until medium-soft (instructions to follow)
11⁄2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1⁄2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 medium onions, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 green chile, split in the middle (you can remove the seeds if you prefer less heat)
1⁄2 teaspoon powdered turmeric
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon powdered coriander
1⁄2 teaspoon chile powder
1 medium tomato, finely diced (roughly 1 cup)
1⁄4 cup water
Pinch of sugar
First, process the jackfruit:
Step 1: Take a knife and oil it with canola (or any neutral oil). Split the jackfruit lengthwise down the middle. By seeing the cross section of the fruit, you’ll know how to cut it sideways: In segments where the fleshy pods are intact.
Step 2: When you’re done cutting the fruit into segments, oil your hands and pull the yellow flesh off the white pith. Place the fruit in a bowl and set aside.
Step 3: Extract the seeds from their pods by making a lengthwise cut into the side. Place the seeds in a separate bowl and save the fruit for other purposes.
Step 4: In a medium pot over high heat, boil 8 cups water with 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. Boil the jackfruit seeds for 20 to 30 minutes until fork-tender, making sure they still have some bite to them.
Step 5: While the seeds are boiling, prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with ice and cold water. Once the seeds have boiled, drain them and put them in the ice bath.
Step 6: Once the seeds are cool enough to handle, peel them. This takes time and can be tedious, but hang in there. Set the seeds aside. If you don’t want to use them immediately, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Now, make the chilli fry:
Step 1: Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high in a copper-bottom pot, wok, or rondeau. When the oil is hot, add the cumin seeds, onions, and green chile and saute for five minutes or until the onions are soft.
Step 2: Add 1 teaspoon salt and the remaining spices and mix well. Cook for 2 minutes to toast the spices and release their oils.
Step 3: Add the tomato and stir. Cook for another 2 minutes, then add the jackfruit seeds and water. Stir well to combine. Put the lid on the pot and turn down the heat to low. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, then add a pinch of sugar and cook for another 2 minutes. You can add more sugar, depending on how spicy you want the dish to be.
Step 4: Serve the chilli fry warm, accompanied by breads such as chapatis or puris.
Joanna Lobo is a freelance journalist from India who enjoys writing about food and its ties to communities, her Goan heritage, and other things that make her happy.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa