Ackee and saltfish are synonymous with Jamaica, as closely linked to national identity as reggae or cricket. Dipped with herbs and peppers and accompanied by rich Caribbean toppings like plantains and breadfruit, it is a testament to the country’s tumultuous history and multiracial roots. The fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt, would have it for breakfast. But how did a meal that combines preserved North Atlantic fish and potentially poisonous West African fruit become Jamaica’s national dish?
The answer is rooted in the country’s history of slavery. Ackee is a voluptuous, red-skinned fruit related to lychee native to Ghana. The salted fish is native to the rough seas of northern Europe and eastern Canada. The subsequent marriage of ingredients in Jamaican kitchens and restaurants was a direct result of the triangular slave trade between Britain, West Africa and its Caribbean colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Ackee was brought to the island, probably on a West African slave ship, in the mid-1700s,” said Janet Crick, manager of Jamaica Culinary Tours in Falmouth on the island’s north coast. . “Its name is derived from the original name of the fruit in the Ghanaian Twi language: Ankye. Interestingly, its scientific name Blighia sapida was granted in 1806 in honor of Captain Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty), who took the plant from Jamaica to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, in 1793. Previously, ackee was unknown to science . “
The fruit adapted well to Jamaica’s tropical climate and flourished quickly. These days, you’ll see large, dense ackee trees beautifying the landscape everywhere, from the Hip Strip of Montego Bay to the Gardens of Goldeneye, the former home of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
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Salted fish (traditionally cod) is caught and prepared in the North Atlantic. In the days before freezers and refrigerators, drying and salting were the main ways of preserving fish. By the mid-17th century, it became economically viable to transport large quantities of salt cod from Nova Scotia in Canada to the British Caribbean colonies, where it was exchanged for rum, sugar and molasses.
It wasn’t surprising that both foods became staples in colonial Jamaica. Non-perishable salted fish is inexpensive, easy to store, and high in protein. Ackee is packed with fiber, protein, and vitamin C. In Jamaica’s brutal slave society, foodstuffs made a cheap and nutritious meal for slaves in the country’s hot and humid sugar cane plantations. There is no record of when the two ingredients were first combined in a dish; but at some point in the last century a definitive recipe has emerged.
“First, you boil the ackee and the salted fish for about 20 minutes before draining and removing the fish bones,” explained Cuthbert Binns, executive chef of Pelican Grill, a longtime restaurant on Hip. Montego Bay Strip. “This way the ackee absorbs some of the salt.”
“Then you sauté the onions, tomatoes, green onions and Scotch Bonnet peppers in another pan. Add the boiled ackee and salted fish, sprinkle with a little thyme and black pepper and it’s ready to serve. “
Sides can vary, but the standards, according to Cuthbert, are roasted breadfruit, boiled green banana, johnnycake (fried dumplings), and seared plantain.
When cooked, the flesh of the spongy ackee turns from beige to buttery yellow. Its smooth, creamy flavor perfectly balances the crisp salty taste of the fish. Although technically classified as a fruit, ackee is treated more as a vegetable in Jamaican cuisine. Tourists often confuse it with scrambled eggs.
Ackee and salted fish are traditionally eaten for breakfast or brunch, and Cuthbert estimates his kitchen distributes around 50 servings a day. As an imaginative spin-off, the Pelican Grill also offers the concoction as a spoonful dinner appetizer on a slice of bammy (cassava flatbread). Shop around and you’ll likely come across a vegan-friendly “virgin ackee”, while the meat variants replace fish with salty “corned pork”.
You don’t have to stray far from the Pelican Grill to find an ackee tree. Several of the fragrant evergreens grow wild on the road to Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. Ackee can be harvested year round. “When I was young we had two ackee trees in our yard,” Cuthbert said. “Some months one tree would bear fruit while the other was unproductive. Then they would switch over. It was only during the summer months that both trees were productive.”
Despite its bright vermilion skin, ackee has a dark side: the fruit is poisonous when unripe. Eating it before it’s ripe causes what’s known as Jamaican vomiting disease, which on rare occasions can be fatal. Time Magazine ranked ackee as one of the 10 most dangerous foods in the world. As a result, his trade is carefully controlled. In 1973, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the importation of ackee into the United States. After a lengthy lobbying campaign by the Jamaica Ackee Task Force, the ban was partially lifted in 2000, allowing the import of canned or frozen ackee as long as it meets strict FDA regulations.
For Jamaicans, there are no such restrictions. Ackee is often sold by the side of the road on makeshift tables a few feet from its mother tree. “It’s safe to pluck an ackee when the fruit has opened naturally and you can see the yellow pods inside without forcing the fruit to open,” said Crick. “Ackee contains a poisonous gas, hypoglycin A, which is released when the red fruit opens, meaning it is ripe and ready to eat.”
For aficionados of Jamaican cuisine, the nuances go further. There are two different types of ackee – cheese and butter – each with their culinary merits. “The flesh of the buttery ackee has a richer, yellower color,” Crick said. “It boils quickly and crushes or disintegrates very easily when cooked. In contrast, cheese ackee is a lighter, lighter color and much firmer in texture, making it more easily resistant to the process of cooking. cooking. “
Ackee’s poisoned image has meant that its adoption as a delicacy outside of Jamaica has been limited. In West Africa the seeds and pods are used to make soap. In Haiti, food shortages have sometimes resulted in illness and death after people ate an unripe ackee.
Ackee has a dark side: the fruit is poisonous when unripe
For the Jamaican diaspora, getting new ackee is difficult. Most expats have to settle for the canned variety, a suitable, if unspectacular, substitute akin to consuming canned peaches rather than juicy fruit from the market. Salted fish is also variable. Nowadays, it is more likely to come from Norway or Guyana than from Nova Scotia. Although cod is still the default, depleted stocks in recent years mean that other white fish like tilapia are sometimes used.
For the real breakfast, Crick says an experience on the island is always better than eating abroad, not only because the ackee is fresh, but because the Scotch Bonnet peppers and herbs grown on place provide superior seasoning. His favorite haunts are a small kitchen store called the Yash Bowl in his home base in Falmouth; the restaurant at the Sandy Haven Boutique hotel in Negril; and Deliworks at the Sovereign Shopping Center in the capital Kingston.
Wherever you eat it, you taste a piece of Jamaican soul. Ackee and salt fish may have their roots in the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, but the contemporary dish, marinated for years in the Jamaican cultural melting pot, perfectly sums up a country whose motto is “Sur many, one people “.
Culinary roots is a BBC Travel series connected to rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.
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